Jewish Americans across the country are marking the High Holidays this year by praying with their feet ― showing up at protests to speak out against the detention and mistreatment of undocumented immigrants.
Progressive Jews are planning multiple protests during the Days of Awe, the 10-day period between Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur that is considered the holiest season on the Jewish calendar. Though the actions have various goals ― from defunding the federal agencies responsible for detaining migrants to pushing for driver’s licenses for undocumented people ― the common thread for activists is to use the traditions and themes of the holiday season to spotlight policies that hurt immigrants.
In Newark, New Jersey, Jewish activists with the group Never Again Action joined with immigrant advocates on Thursday to protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. The action started with blasts from the shofar, a musical instrument traditionally used as a spiritual wake up call during Rosh Hashanah services. At least 250 people gathered in the rain to criticize state Democrats for contracting with ICE to house detainees in county jails, organizers said. The protesters were also supporting a push to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants.
The shofar was later used to signal the start of civil disobedience, during which some protesters blocked a road. Thirteen people were issued summonses after disrupting traffic during the protest, Newark police told HuffPost.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, told the protesters that saying “never again” about the Holocaust means, in these times, closing migrant detention camps and abolishing ICE.
“Given the horrors we are seeing ― concentration camps, law enforcement deployed to round up targeted groups, families separated and caged and children dying in state custody ― it is essential that the Jewish community demonstrate publicly that we will not turn our back on refugees and asylum seekers arriving in our country and our immigrant neighbors already here,” Kahn-Troster told HuffPost.
The Jewish High Holidays begin with new year celebrations on Rosh Hoshanah ― Sept. 29 this year ― and wrap up with a day of atonement on Yom Kippur, which ends Oct. 9.
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, a Washington director with Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said that the High Holidays are a time when Jews are called on to take stock of their deeds and seek forgiveness for actions that have harmed other people. It’s also a time of remembrance, when people honor those who have recently died.
Kimelman-Block said he thinks that during the current season, many Jewish Americans will be thinking about the one year anniversary on Oct. 27 of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, in which a gunman killed 11 worshippers. He noted that, according to law enforcement authorities, the Tree of Life synagogue was targeted partially because of the alleged shooter’s antagonism toward a Jewish nonprofit’s work with refugees.
Volunteers with Bend the Arc Jewish Action have planned at least 12 actions nationwide coinciding with the Days of Awe targeted at urging federal defunding of ICE and the Customs and Border Protection agency. A group in Denver plans to gather on Sunday at a city park to recite the names of all who have died in ICE custody this year. In Sunrise, Florida, another group plans to occupy the lobby outside Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office on Monday to protest her June vote in favor of emergency funding for ICE.
In several cities, activists with Bend the Arc plan to perform Tashlich, a High Holidays ritual that traditionally involves casting bread into a body of water to symbolically cast off the sins of the past year and commit to becoming better people in the year ahead. Kimelman-Block explained that Tashlich is being used in these protests as a way for activists to symbolically cast away harmful immigration policies. On a more personal level, the ritual forces participants to examine their own possible complicity in what’s happening to immigrants, he said.
“It’s really powerful during this time of introspection for people to look at the fact that we are causing harm to innocent people through the apparatus of our government, which is something we fund through our tax dollars,” he said.
Kimelman-Block said that while his organization tries every year to make Jewish holidays relevant to contemporary social issues, the scale of this year’s actions has a fresh feel.
“The amount of energy, the number of people involved, the commitment we’re seeing is something we haven’t seen before,” he said.
The organizers of Thursday’s protest in Newark found each other through Never Again Action, a national grassroots movement against ICE led by progressive Jews. The movement, which arose spontaneously over the summer, has since led to dozens of protests outside ICE detention centers and offices across the country.
In Boston on Thursday, another group of Jewish activists with Never Again Action staged a four-hour sit-in with members of Movimiento Cosecha, an advocacy group for undocumented immigrants, at the Massachusetts State House to show support for legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to get state driver’s licenses. At its peak, the sit-in at the office of House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D) drew about 20 people, according to Alicia Cortez, a volunteer with Movimiento Cosecha who participated in the action. Thirteen people were eventually arrested and charged with trespassing, MassLive reports.
Cortez told HuffPost that she was undocumented for many years and had to drive without a license. Throughout that period in her life, she was terrified of being pulled over, transferred to ICE custody and being suddenly separated from her children. Driver’s licenses are a necessity, she said, because they allow immigrants to go to work and take their kids to school.
Cortez said she was nervous while participating in the sit-in, but took comfort from being surrounded by people who supported the cause. She said having the Jewish activists at the sit-in was “beautiful.”
“It was amazing, the way that we were able to connect,” she said. “When I was talking, they were looking at me, their eyes were tearing up themselves.”
“It was an amazing connection that only through the heart can happen and through the feelings that you understand [driver’s licenses are] a necessity, not a luxury,” she added.
Elizabeth Weinbloom, a local spokesperson for Never Again Action, told HuffPost that the Boston demonstration was led primarily by immigrant advocates and just happened to coincide with the Jewish High Holidays. Still, the Jewish activists participating in the protest are responding to an essential requirement of the Days of Awe, she said ― to account for and mend one’s relationships, including relationships with the government and with local communities.
The Jewish community knows what it’s like to have basic rights and freedom of movement curtailed by legal measures, Weinbloom said, pointing to the restrictions placed on Jews in Nazi Germany before the Holocaust.
“We experienced that and we know how much worse it can get,” Weinbloom said. “We are responsible ― as most of us are citizens with representation, individuals that are safe in this country in a way that undocumented immigrants are not ― to use our position of privilege in these Days of Awe to say that we are here for what the immigrant community is asking for.”