Rabbi Charles Arian doesn’t have any illusions of what he accomplished at the border. He spent four days in Nogales, Ariz., last week, shuffling back and forth between the United States and Mexico, meeting with people from all over Latin America, but he knows he got more than he gave.
“The main beneficiaries of this trip are us,” Arian, the senior rabbi at Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, said of the seven other rabbis and two Jewish educators he took the trip with. “We are learning and being challenged.”
He organized the visit as separated migrant families became a national story over the summer. The Conservative rabbi has relatives in Mexico City, and he travels to the country almost every year. He said that he feels a deep connection with the country and wanted to find a way to help, but most non-profits offering services at the border told him a group of Jewish community leaders with little expertise in immigration issues would largely be getting in the way.
But one group extended an invitation, a Jesuit organization called the Kino Border Initiative. If Arian could put together a delegation not too small to be virtually useless, and not too big to be a burden, Kino could make it work.
The group spent much of the trip at El Comedor, a support center for people recently deported from the North, where they served meals and talked with people who’d been deported. The Jewish leaders also spent a day inside an “Operation Streamline” court, where as many as 70 people can be tried at once and illegal entry is treated as a criminal offense rather than an administrative offense as it is elsewhere.
“It’s an assembly line,” Arian said. “People can’t get fairness when they’re there 70 at a time and don’t speak the language being spoken.”
Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation was also among the rabbis on the trip. He was struck by a hike they took through the desert, simulating the path of an immigrant making the often dangerous trek. Their guide shared items that had been found, including a series of small photographs.
“It included the most heart-wrenching things like identity cards, but we also saw these photos, like one of a couple dancing. You wonder, ‘Where are they now? Why did they leave that stuff behind?” Seidel said. “There was a very blurry, inexpert photo, but in the corner you can make out a pink tricycle, and you can just imagine the kid.”
An amateur juggler, Seidel showed off his skills for the kids at El Comedor one day.
Often, Arian said, the center provides assistance to those in the most tenuous circumstances, like people who’ve been deported and have little or no money or a plan for what to do next.
“I taught some kids and the smile on a kid’s face — if you can get them to focus on something else, it’s a tiny bit of light in a dark place,” Seidel said.
Arian said he’s also been amazed by the strength of many immigrants’ faith. His Spanish is good enough to converse, and many people have told him that what’s happened has been God’s will, and that ultimately they will persevere.
“These people are not cursing God, they’re saying, ‘God was with me in the wilderness, and somehow I made it through,’” Arian recalled.
“I think in my own life I could use more of that sense of God’s presence and love. But I was struck by how serene people are. People can still smile and laugh, it’s a real inspiration.”
At the end of the trip, the group travelled to Tucson for dinner at a local rabbi’s home. There’s no organized Jewish live in Nogales, a city cut in half by the border.
But Arian is hopeful he can take the experience in Arizona and garner further support for the migrant population back home in Washington.
When he first told people what he’d be doing, congregants and neighbors offered toys and toiletries, which he brought down in a suitcase. He’s hoping to formalize that and collect as much as he can to send down.
“In many ways, [Nogales] is one city and one culture. And if by the grace of God you were born a couple hundred feet away from your cousin on the other side, your life is just much different,” Arian said. “I can’t stop thinking about how arbitrary it is, and how fortunate we are to have been born in the U.S.”