Members of the greater Washington Jewish community mobilized in opposition to President Donald Trump’s now-canceled policy of separating children from their parents when detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, a practice that has drawn widespread criticism from political and religious groups across the United States.
The policy, an outgrowth of the zero-tolerance approach on immigration that the Trump administration implemented in April, led to the removal of more than 2,300 migrant children from their parents. The detainments have produced a visceral, and sometimes personal reaction of outrage. In response, rabbis and lay leaders have been taking actions such as demonstrating, writing letters to members of Congress and visiting detention facilities to express their anger.
On June 20, President Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families and requiring instead that parents and children be detained together indefinitely. The order, though, could violate the 1997 Flores Settlement prohibiting federal authorities from detaining children for longer than 20 days, raising the prospect of legal challenges to the new policy. Trump also tweeted over the weekend that his administration would deport illegal immigrants without allowing them a judicial hearing.
In response, thousands are expected to attend the #KeepFamiliesTogether marches on Saturday in cities across the country, including Washington.
But some clergy have already taken part in demonstrations. Temple Sinai Associate Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser joined 50 interfaith clergy on June 21 inside the Russell Senate Office Building to protest the immigration policies. He said the clergy gathered around a group of children who were lying on the floor of the rotunda covered in silver Mylar blankets, and a cage — resembling images of children being housed in federal detention facilities. The group dispersed peacefully, he said, after three warnings from the police. There were no arrests.
“This gives a visual to what’s going on in the world,” he said.
Nationally, 10 rabbis traveled to Texas last week along with other clergy to visit detention facilities in Texas while calling for an end to the zero-tolerance policy. The rabbis included Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.
“Those at the highest levels of the Trump Administration are responsible for this moral travesty — and we must hold them accountable,” he wrote in a press release.
Temple Rodef Shalom Senior Rabbi Amy Schwartzman said members of her Falls Church Reform congregation attended rallies in Washington last week. And the group Women of Rodef Shalom have been donating supplies to federal detention facilities.
“This is just another devastating event that feels like the moral compass of our country is headed in the wrong direction,” she said. “It’s lost its magnetic pull toward the north.”
Hazzan Rabbi Rachel Anne Hersh, of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, said she has written to Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), as well as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), to urge them to support immigration reform in Congress. Even though those legislators already oppose Trump’s hard-line policies, writing letters, she said, was a cathartic exercise.
“Being able to contact them was at least a way to feel like I was participating,” she said.
Hersh said the migrant crisis has brought together the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements. Organizations from each movement were among 27 Jewish signatories to a letter calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to end the zero-tolerance immigration policies.
“Many of us are passionate about the environment, or food insecurity, but when you’re faced with a situation where children are being ripped away from their parents… it’s a clear call to action and awareness,” Hersh said.
At a meeting hosted by HIAS at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, participants voiced frustration that there was little they could do to change government policy. District residents have no vote in Congress, and local officials already oppose Trump’s immigration policies, they said.
HIAS Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy Naomi Steinberg urged the group to have their family and friends outside of Washington to contact their members of Congress.
Attendee Lindsay Marcal, a Silver Spring resident, said she has been writing elected officials in and out of Maryland, which she called a moral obligation.
“My grandfather, my great uncle, they’re immigrants to this country,” she said. “I feel like they would be appalled if they could see this for themselves. I owe it to my family to be involved in this issue.”
Jonah Berger, an intern with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and JTA contributed to this [email protected]