NEW YORK — For 20 years, Armando Rojas woke up every morning at 5 a.m. He exercised for two hours with his wife, Silvia. He ate breakfast with his two sons, Armando Jr. and Ulises. And then he went to the synagogue.
Now, Rojas hasn’t been to Bet Torah Congregation since February. That’s the Mount Kisco, N.Y., synagogue where he was the custodian, beloved for his easy manner with children and his constant presence, always working late to set up a bar mitzvah or a Sunday school program.
He hasn’t hugged his sons since April.
The incident that has shaken his family and inflamed a congregation began one night when Rojas was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a local bar, where a fight happened to break out. When police came, they arrested Rojas.
While Rojas was fully exonerated of any wrongdoing, the police sent his name to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rojas was an undocumented immigrant, and within weeks, his attorney says, he had been placed in detention and then deported to Mexico with no money, cellphone or change of clothes. He borrowed a cellphone to call his older son and tell him he was no longer in New York.
Soon after he arrived at his sister’s house in Atlixco, Mexico, she began receiving threatening phone calls. Rojas’s three nephews had been killed in that town, according to his attorney and local news sources, and now he feared he and his sister were targets.
His sudden deportation shocked his family, which had lived without incident for 30 years in White Plains, N.Y., and forced a new conversation about the stakes of immigration for Bet Torah, a politically diverse congregation of 540 families that previously had little personal exposure to the opaque and often maddening system of immigration proceedings.
In the past 10 months, the congregants at this Conservative synagogue have come together in an enormous show of support but have also had to come to terms with the limits of their own influence and power.
“I just feel like a brick,” Rojas’s son Armando Jr., 26, said, describing the emotional resilience he has had to build up as he tries to support his mother and younger brother through this time. “But the crazy thing has been seeing how many people have come out to support us. And that keeps me going every day. I never realized how many people loved my dad.”
Within days of Rojas’s initial arrest, Bet Torah’s Rabbi Aaron Brusso formed a committee to organize a fundraiser, a letter-writing campaign and a rotating list of members who would drop off food for the Rojas family. He found an immigration attorney to take Rojas’s case.
In April, Brusso and congregants Linda Dishner and Mike Kraus accompanied Armando Jr. to the Mexican border, where they planned to meet Rojas and walk with him through the border to apply for asylum. They were not successful that first trip, and Dishner and congregant Stuart Ginsberg returned a second time, where Rojas was able to pass through to be detained for his asylum hearing.
Since April, Rojas has had two “credible fear” interviews, which establish eligibility for asylum. The initial case was rejected, leaving one final chance at an appeal.
As they waited, Margie Orell of Bet Torah organized a vigil, which 250 people attended.
“Some of us know the stories of our grandparents or great-grandparents leaving Europe, but that was very far removed,” said Laura Sweig, a longtime member at Bet Torah who, along with her husband, Richard, drove some of the Rojas family upstate for the appeal hearing. “For a lot of us, this is the first time immigration is not just in the news, but personal.”
Bet Torah congregants have volunteered for years for an organization that helps immigrants; members of the synagogue often tutor English language classes and provide child care for immigrant neighbors. But Rojas’s situation set off new conversations.
“Whatever we believe, everyone had a relationship with Armando,” Brusso said, emphasizing that he prizes the diversity of beliefs within his congregation. “Our community believes in extended care and extended family. Armando intuitively got that, in the way he learned the names of our children and greeted every member at the door. This is not a business; this is a sacred community.”
For Brusso, this sacred community requires an expansion of empathy and understanding on the part of congregants who question why Rojas arrived without documents to begin with and why he didn’t appeal for help earlier. “This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the experience” of immigrants like Rojas, he said, adding that American Jews sometimes overestimate the significance of their own confidence of status in this country.
Gadi Zohar, Rojas’s immigration attorney, said that any application for permanent residency would have required Rojas to separate from his family for an unknown period of time. And as Brusso and Bet Torah came to learn, not even their best efforts would ultimately save the day.
Last week, Rojas’s final appeal for asylum was heard in Batavia, N.Y. Dozens of congregants checked their work schedules to try to make the trip. They knew that Rojas would not even be present but merely be on screen from his holding center in Albany, and they would likely not even be allowed inside the courtroom to show their support. But they wanted to be there.
Three cars from the synagogue took the seven-hour drive upstate.
At the courthouse, a secretary told them that the court had received so many letters of support — more than 300 — they didn’t know what to do with them. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” she emphasized, saying they had all been put into a box.
After a 15-minute closed-door hearing, the judge told them he would decide in 24 hours. The cars returned home in the snow and traffic on Nov. 15. Late on Nov. 16, the judge denied this final appeal.
Rojas is due to be deported. His family does not yet know when.
For Bet Torah, the inability to help one of their own has been deeply dispiriting. Writing to the congregation, Brusso said: “The detention facility is one of the most mechanized forms of processing human beings and their stories I have ever encountered. Everything about it is meant to insulate the people who work there, the judges and even those of us visiting from seeing human beings.”
On Nov. 18, congregants huddled after morning prayers to discuss what else they could do to support the Rojas family.
“This felt like a done deal even before we started,” Dishner said. “They had no intention of letting him stay. They were just going through the motions, and for what? He’s going to end up back in Mexico.”
She worked closely with Rojas for seven years while overseeing the renovation of the synagogue. He took charge of the small garden she donated in her mother’s memory.
For the first time in these long 10 months, Dishner began to wonder whether all of the efforts and the rallying and getting so many people’s hopes up for so long had been the right decision.
For Armando Jr., regulating his emotions has become even more paramount. “You just take it day by day,” he said. Reflecting on his life a year ago, with his family complete and undisturbed, he reminisced about that routine schedule of early-morning workouts and late-night hangouts. “We were really happy. We weren’t perfect, but we were perfect for each other.”
A few days ago, he was on his way to work when a man passed by wearing the cologne his father always wore. He stayed rooted to the spot, overwhelmed with the memory of his father’s smell.