Meet 3 Men On The Front Lines Of The Immigration Crisis

On a typical weekday, Rabbi Jonathan Klein can often be found marching alongside ministers, monsignors and janitors. Irv Hershenbaum could be pressuring multimillion-dollar almond growers to provide their workers with shade to protect them from the blazing California sun. And “Rabbi Dr.” Aryeh Cohen might well be phoning his Talmud students to let them know he’ll be late because he’s been arrested for civil disobedience. Again.

But on a typical Saturday, you can find all three men in a tiny, dusty, 110-year-old rented Yiddish cultural center next to a Petco, dancing with the Torah to Shlomo Carlebach melodies. They are all active members of the Shtibl Minyan, a small, lay-led independent community that describes itself as “Hasidic Egalitarian” and meets at a Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring cultural center in Los Angeles’s heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood (full disclosure: I am a member as well). In the tradition of The Workmen’s Circle and the aid it provided to Yiddish-speaking newcomers to America, these three members are carrying on a modern version of that mission.

Klein, Hershenbaum and and Cohen are all Los Angeles-based activists, deeply involved in today’s high-inten- sity struggle to protect immigrants from the stepped-up ICE raids, roundups and deportations of the Trump administration.

Klein — tall and wiry and perpetually bursting with energy — is the executive director of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), an interfaith coalition founded in 1996 to protect vulnerable communities, improve low-income workers’ wages and conditions and fight for union representation. CLUE’s current “Immigration Justice” campaign teaches immigrants what their rights are and how they can respond to raids; trains local advocates in rapid responses to enforcement actions; and signs up faith communities to become sanctuary congregations.

Cohen’s organization, Bend the Arc advocates for criminal justice reform and helps citizens get involved in issues of immigrant justice. Alongside his “day job” as a professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, Cohen — an amply bearded sage with an affinity for snazzy hats – is BTA’s Rabbi-in-Residence.

Hershenbaum — whose constant smile and “gentle bear cub” appearance belies a lifetime of fighting for the disempowered — is a vice president of the United Farm Workers, which represents 25,000 California farmworkers growing and picking everything from mushrooms to grapes for Gallo wine. Hershenbaum and the UFW recently led the successful campaign to mandate the nation’s first statewide overtime wage for farm workers.

Hershenbaum also calls himself the chief of “chair setting up” at Shtibl, which was founded 18 years ago as an alternative to institutional synagogues.

“The idea was we didn’t want a community where you had a social justice committee and an education committee and a davening committee,” Cohen told me. “We wanted a minyan where everybody was everything: social justice, learning and davening.”

Despite wearing multiple kippot, both in and out of shul, the three men also wear their passion for the newly urgent issue of immigrants and refugees on their sleeves. Hershenbaum is the child of Holocaust survivors, a father from Poland and a mother from then-Czechoslovakia. Cohen’s progenitors avoided the Holocaust by fleeing Europe during World War I: “My father’s father was an undocumented immigrant who walked over the Canadian border after stowing away on a ship,” he says.

Klein’s family made it to L.A. from the Ukraine by way of New York and Montreal, but he also tells the story of his daughter’s recent trip to Poland, where she discovered a list of relatives named Kleinerman who were all massacred in the Shoah. For him, the difference between an America that welcomes newcomers and one that refuses them couldn’t be more stark.

Still, these stories could come from any number of Jews belonging to, or not belonging to, any number of synagogues. Why is this the one where these advocates for refugees seek their own refuge?

“I see Shtibl as the synthesis between my grandparents’ values and my great-grandparents’ values,” Klein told me. Despite the fact that he’s a rabbi himself, Klein says he feels more at home in a lay-led place like Shtibl than at conventional rabbi-led synagogues.

“The DIY flavor of Shtibl is attractive to people who want to take responsibility for stuff,” said Cohen, who has been arrested multiple times for civil disobedience actions to physically block ICE officers from carrying out raids.

For Hershenbaum — an avowed “non-shul-goer” — Shtibl’s participatory spirit has led him far beyond chairing the chair committee. For his entire 40-plus-year career, Hershenbaum has been a labor organizer, organizing boycotts and planning pickets with legendary farmworker advocate Cesar Chavez as early as 1974. At Shtibl, he occasionally gives the week’s “Dvar Torah,” connecting the Torah portion to his life’s work. “Jacob was the first worker, and boy did he get screwed,” Hershenbaum quips, “and Passover is about God calling a strike to protest bad conditions.”

“There’s no synagogue I know where there are open announcements about protests taking place,” Klein says. Hershenbaum says his labor advocacy was “pretty much ignored at other synagogues — at Shtibl I was royalty.”

Klein, Cohen and Kershenbaum all say that their work for immigrants has taken on a greater urgency in the Trump era. Cohen says Bend the Arc has “gone on overdrive,” pivoting from awareness actions about the dangers of the Trump administration to civil disobedience against local branches of ICE. Klein compares the Trump administration to the Jewish people’s eternal Biblical nemesis Amalek, “attacking the weakest Israelites from the back of the camp.” Hershenbaum says his task has grown so large, the UFW has created a separate foundation with 25 certified specialists in immigration, “second only to the Catholic Church.”

The trio has enlisted their minyan’s skills and talents. And sometimes the activist core at Shtibl becomes more than the sum of its parts. Recently, Klein informed his community about an undocumented mother and daughter who had survived harrowing dangers to get to the U.S. but were scheduled for deportation. A call went out to the Shtibl listserv to see if members could pledge the money to sponsor the family’s living expenses until they could apply for work permits.

“It wasn’t hard out of a group of 40 people to get 12 people to do it,” Cohen says. “And there was literally no opposition.”

Rob Kutner is a writer for the show “Conan” and is the author of the comic book “Shrinkage.”

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