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Why We Are Spending Tisha B’Av At An Immigrant Detention Center

Jews know something about the immigrant experience.

We know what it means to be a stranger, an unwelcome resident sometimes tolerated but always in danger of being uprooted and forced to become refugees.

Whether we’re marking the Jews’ exile from the Land of Israel following the destruction of the Second Temple, or mourning our exile from Spain, we use Tisha B’Av to commemorate the nearly generational Jewish tragedy of emigrating in search of a safer home.

My grandfather Edward Tepperman came to the US in 1912 at the age of 13, traveling here with only his 15-year-old sister. I think often of the dangers in Eastern Europe and hope for America that would have compelled their parents to send them on this journey alone.

We will be observing Tisha B’Av at the Elizabeth Detention Center to remember and mourn the painful truth of our long history as immigrants. The Center houses about 300 individuals awaiting possible deportation. For many their primary crime is being undocumented, while there they go through a court process that can take up to a year to determine whether they will be deported or allowed to remain in the US. All have harrowing stories that compelled them to take the risks needed to come to the US.

By chanting Lamentations outside this gate, we are amplifying our own stories of living in the vulnerable periphery. By moving our Tisha B’Av services outside of our sanctuaries, we are declaring our solidarity with all immigrants and refugees who feel compelled to leave the safety of their homes to search for a safer life.

The Torah tells us 36 times to care for the ger, the stranger.

When the Torah commands us to treat the stranger with kindness, it isn’t talking about someone we don’t know, but rather the “other” who resides in our midst. The Torah is not concerned with our safety in relation to strangers but rather with the stranger’s safety in relation to us. The Torah recognizes that those labeled “other” are vulnerable and easily abused.

Caring for those who are unprotected and at the periphery of our societies is a core part of what it means to be Jewish.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 says it explicitly: Cut away, therefore the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For your God upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our spiritual path is to open our hearts to those who are mistreated.

Our own history tells us that there is something essential to be learned from the experience of being a stranger. The vulnerability we experience as immigrants is part of our path to knowing God.

The American immigration system has been broken for a long time.

We live in a moment when immigrants without documentation are being arrested and deported as scapegoats and as tools for political gain. So this year synagogues from all over Northern New Jersey, joined by rabbis from T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, will be observing Tisha B’Av to mark our history as immigrants and stand with the most vulnerable among us.

Congregations Bnai Keshet – Montclair, Temple Ner Tamid – Bloomfield, Bnai Abraham – Livingston, Kehillat Shalom – Belle Mead, Temple Sholom -Scotch Plains, and Beth Hatikvah – Summit, as well as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and interfaith partners from Faith in New Jersey will all be participating.

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