Why do you people care about this, about us?” asked a man in Spanish, as I stood in front of a crowd of Latinos at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was not a hostile question, but one of curiosity. Most of this crowd of recent immigrants, many of whom were undocumented, probably had never knowingly met a Jew, much less discussed with one drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers. The speaker’s curiosity was further aroused because I came to the gathering as a representative of my synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, and of Jewish Community Action, a Twin Cities social justice organization.
“I am an immigrant myself,” I explained. “I escaped during a revolution, crossing a dangerous border from Hungary with my family in 1956 when I was seven years old. We were fleeing a repressive Communist regime. But Jews have been immigrants for centuries, throughout the world and often involuntarily. Most Jews came to the U.S. three or four generations ago to escape anti-Semitism and desperate poverty, and those who came to settle in St. Paul first lived here on the West Side.”
I pointed out that they were only the latest immigrants to arrive on the West Side and, though still surprised, this explanation seemed to satisfy my questioner. I came of age politically as a college student during the Viet Nam protests of the 1960s, and I have championed many causes, ranging from universal healthcare coverage to peace in the Middle East. But no issue has engaged me more than the growing plight of immigrants and refugees throughout the world and, especially, in the U. S. The 2000 census revealed that nearly one in ten people living here were foreign-born, the highest proportion since the 1930s. More than 900,000 refugees entered the U.S. since 1993. Millions of new immigrants will come, with and without documents, making immigration one of the key issues of this century. Some will become our physicians and our intellectuals, but most will continue to supply the shadow army of minimum-wage laborers who pick our fruits and vegetables, fry our French fries, fix our roofs, and clean our hotel rooms. They will continue to transform our downtowns and suburbs and create a veritable Babel of languages in our public schools, often causing anxiety and false claims about their drain on our economy and social services.
For me, the myriad social issues generated by these changes are personal, because I understand only too well the difficult lives of these resettled immigrants. When I arrived in Los Angeles, having already lost most of my family during the Holocaust, I instantly lost my language, my friends, my school, my favorite foods, my culture, and everything else familiar. We suddenly became poor, and my family went to work at menial jobs. It took years for me to gain a foothold in American society, and my parents and grandparents never felt fully accepted here.
If we are to take seriously that the Torah commands us no fewer than 31 times to remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Mitzrayim, it is incumbent on us as Jews to ally ourselves with other immigrants. And we must care for the undocumented as well as the documented for, as my rabbi, Morris Allen, asserts, we were perhaps the original “undocumented workers.”
We make alliances in two ways. First, we must organize. Shuls and their social justice committees must reach out to immigrant communities and their religious institutions. Social justice organizations, such as Jewish Community Action and Just Congregations, which use organizing as a tool to create grassroots coalitions, can play a critical leadership role. Second, we must listen to the immigrants. Only by listening, as we did to the Latino immigrants we met, did we come to understand that their key community issue was drivers’ licenses, without which undocumented workers could contribute to our economy but not establish even minimal lives.
Those initial conversations at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church grew into a movement that engaged Jews from many Twin Cities congregations, along with a church-based social justice organization named ISAIAH, the Catholic Church, business leaders, and elected officials. We lost the drivers’ license campaign after 9/11, but our coalition led the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to enact “separation ordinances,” barring all city departments, including the police, from inquiring about any resident’s immigration status in the course of city business.
The alliances we built through these campaigns invigorated our shul’s social justice committee and gave new meaning to our congregation’s mission of tikkun olam. It enriched our lives and reestablished a place for Jews, as Jews, in the coalition of progressive organizations that seeks social and economic justice in Minnesota and our nation. And it led us most recently toward an emerging issue of importance to both immigrants and Jews: the struggle for safe working conditions and economic justice for the Latinos who work in the Jewish owned kosher meat packing plants of Iowa.
Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibilty (shma.com) April 2007, Vol. 37, No. 639-640.