When I read this phrase the most important word in it is “sanctuary” — a holy place, where people come to worship, be in community, and do holy work, but also a place of refuge and safety — and that is not a coincidence. In this line from Exodus, sanctuary does not refer to a specific structure or institution. Rather, it is God dwelling among the people; holiness is found in actions toward fellow humans. For the past nine years, I have worked with asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea in south Tel Aviv. Every single day, through my work at the Garden Library, my colleagues and I help people navigate a complicated system to secure refuge in Israel. And, for those the state rejects, we try to be their sanctuary, to do holy work among them.
In this place, where people share intricate stories about their homes and the reasons they escaped to Israel, they never feel as though they are strangers. They come to meet other people, create community, and engage in social change. Our art programs allow people to transcend the obstacles of everyday life, the language barriers, the pain. Through art, we express collective emotions around our painful shared history.
Although some of these people may be allowed to stay in Israel, they will never feel safe; without asylum status, they face constant threats of detention and deportation. Into this void, we provide classes and opportunities to learn about, engage in, and experience civic society and community.
Sanctuary is therefore found among people. God knows that physical structures are not what sustains holy work; humans make holy work happen. And our established networks hold holy protected space for others.
I am Togod, an asylum seeker from Sudan living in Israel. I am not Jewish. My early connections to faith faded as I fled political persecution in my home and struggled on the migration route. This verse on the left (Exodus 25:8) reminds me of our initial arrival in Israel.
I think we imagined the whole country to be a place of sanctuary. We know the Bible, and we expected the Jewish people — because of their history and faith — to give us shelter as refugees fleeing genocide, coming by foot through the Sinai desert. But we discovered this was not the case, as no refugee status is possible for us, even after 10 years.
Today, asylum seekers remain threatened with deportation; we are criminalized and we feel unsafe. And yet, I find an unusual and deeply satisfying feeling of safety and faith when I work with Israelis, fellow migrants, and asylum seekers. As Dafna Lichtman writes, the Garden Library provides a haven where I now feel a measure of protection. Surrounded by poverty, drug use, and crime, we — asylum seekers, migrants, and south Tel Aviv residents — find safe space. Dozens of Israeli volunteers work with us and teach our children.
At the culture center, I meet members of Israeli groups who come to learn about the situation. When I share my story, I often see that I’ve punctured their assumptions, what they’ve heard on the media about us. People listen; sometimes they share their parents’ stories of seeking refuge years ago. This becomes a holy moment for me. It gives me strength and courage for the next talk, for the next struggle, for the next day.
As I write, I am sitting at Jalilah’s bedside in Oakland’s county hospital emergency room where she faces an as yet undiagnosed, potentially serious, health issue. Jalilah is a young lesbian refugee from Uganda. She fled to Kenya and ended up in Kakuma refugee camp for close to three years, where the community of about 250 queer Ugandans faces daily violence and persecution. She was granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees and is one of the few to be resettled in the U.S. recently, as there have been drastic cuts to our refugee program by the Trump administration.
I met Jalilah a year ago through my volunteer work with the Jewish Family & Children’s Services-East Bay. I serve on an accompaniment team of Kehilla Community Synagogue members, who assist immigrants as they settle into their new lives in California. After Jalilah’s housing plans fell through, she moved in with me and my wife, where she has lived for the past year.
I think of makom kadosh, sacred space, as sanctuary. We are honored to provide our home as a safe, supportive place where Jalilah knows that she will not go to sleep hungry and where she will have the freedom to pursue her dreams.
When she first arrived, Jalilah stayed in her room watching movies, reading, and talking to her friends from the refugee camp. Jalilah’s quest for a new start has been slowed down because of her medical issues. She will stay with us until she has recovered fully and is ready to pursue work. She is now family.