The congregation that I serve, Temple Sinai in the District, recently formally decided to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants fearing deportation. Since then, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution encouraging congregations to do what they can to protect undocumented immigrants. This support from the Reform Movement, the largest Jewish denomination in North America, sends a clear signal about where we stand at a time when immigrants are made to feel increasingly unwelcome and unsafe in the United States.
During Passover, Jews around the world reflect on our ancestors’ journeys from oppression to freedom. At our Seders, we are commanded to experience the Exodus as if we ourselves had been liberated from Egypt. As we recall that journey, we cannot ignore immigrants who are facing adversity, displacement or marginalization in our society.
After years of stalled negotiations in Congress on comprehensive immigration reform, we now face a political and cultural moment marred by xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence. The government’s stated goals of building walls and increasing enforcement have already broken up families and forcibly removed productive, long-standing members of our communities. As a community of faith, our course of action must transcend politics. When people’s lives are at stake and it is within our power to intercede, we are compelled to act.
This is not the first time Temple Sinai and the Reform Jewish Movement have offered shelter and assistance to immigrants and refugees. We welcomed Holocaust survivors and others displaced by World War II seeking to rebuild their lives in the D.C. area. In the 1970s and 1980s, we welcomed Vietnamese refugees. In the 1980s and 1990s, Temple Sinai and Reform congregations across North America joined the Sanctuary Movement to protect refugees and immigrants from Central America, and we helped Soviet Jewish Refuseniks resettle in the United States. Today, members of our community have trained with Lutheran Social Services and remain prepared to support a refugee family fleeing war and violence overseas.
The teaching from Scripture is clear: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33). This injunction is echoed 35 more times throughout the Torah. There is no mistaking our responsibility.
As a sanctuary congregation, we have committed to concrete action. Working with other sanctuary congregations across lines of faith, we will host “Know Your Rights” seminars, organize a “rapid response team” to serve as witnesses during Immigrations and Customs Enforcement actions and accompany immigrants to court and other legal appointments if needed. We will provide temporary shelter in our building for members of our community who might need protection as they address their immigration status.
In recent years, immigration law enforcement has been inconsistent as different presidential administrations shifted priorities through executive orders. Current legal uncertainty has forced people into the shadows. With the threat to accelerate deportations and separate families, providing shelter, witness and legal aid is how we can live our values in the face of adversity.
The choice of how to act is something that each congregation must determine for itself. There is potential risk involved and many logistical considerations: Do you have a kitchen and a working shower? Is there a place where people can sleep? We engaged legal counsel as part of our due diligence. Ultimately, our community decided that becoming a sanctuary congregation and standing with the immigrants among us, regardless of legal status, is intrinsic to who we are. The decision is not one that we take lightly.
When our ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai and Moses read the record of the covenant aloud, the people responded, “na’aseh vinishma” (Exodus 24:7) — we will do and we understand. That eagerness to act, even as we continue to strive for complete understanding, is sacred.
A commitment to building a welcoming community is a core aspect of our Reform Jewish identity. Our belief is that the United States is a nation of immigrants and that is an advantage and a blessing. With these values under threat in a way they haven’t been for over a generation, we won’t back down.
The writer is senior rabbi at Temple Sinai and a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.