A Journey to the Border. Sermon for Parashat Vayishlach 2018

I have always found one specific aspect of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel to be particularly fascinating. The Torah records that “Vayavayk esh eemo”, a man wrestled with him. It is not Jacob who initiates the wrestling match. It is forced upon him. He doesn’t seek it out as troubled as he might have been. The fight comes to him.

I had not anticipated traveling to Texas last week. While I have expressed great concern about many of the administration’s policies and perspectives and shared my disdain for the language and the rhetoric that we have heard, I hadn’t anticipated traveling 1,700 miles to stand in a desolate field next to the Mexican border protesting one specific administration policy. But, having heard the story of the camp in Tornillo, and considering that we were nearing Thanksgiving, the holiday which is supposed to reflect the highest of our values as an American people, I felt deeply that in many ways that, as a nation, our ideals, and our values are being threatened and I had to accept the challenge to join this struggle in a more active way.

Before I describe the experience and share my thoughts, I want to share two disclaimers. First, there were many, many more, including Rabbi Josh Whinston from TBE who did all the hard work to make this happen and who made the long drive from Ann Arbor doing the important work of raising awareness along the way. I sacrificed very little to make this trip but I was proud to join the group and to represent Beth Israel Congregation in this critical journey.

And secondly, I do not want my  remarks this morning to be considered a general presentation on the issue of immigration and asylum. These are very difficult issues and I do believe our nation needs a reasonable, responsible policy in these areas. This morning, I am referring only to some specific aspects of these issues in which I feel we are on the wrong track and the policies which are wrong and must be changed.

So, what happened and what did I learn?

There were three major elements to the one day “action”. The first was a visit to the Mexican border at El Paso/Juarez. We were greeted at the border by several clergy who were working with immigrants and those seeking asylum and heard from a member of El Paso city government, Peter Svarzbein. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and he talked to us about how closely intertwined the two communities- El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico- are and how the rhetoric that attempts to encourage fear among US citizens concerning immigrants and asylum seekers is damaging this long standing relationship that both communities depend upon. He said that he was proud of us for standing up for a more fair and more ethical policy at the border and then, while we stood under the entrance to the Paso Del Norte Bridge which connects the two cities over the very narrow Rio Grande, he led us in a familiar song he learned from camp,“Kol Haolam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od”. The words of this song: “The entire world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid” sounded so ironic. Singing that song while standing in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two cities and countries was jarring.

We then proceeded to walk across the bridge into Mexico. We did so because our guides in Texas wanted us to see the migrant asylum seekers who camp out on the bridge because, due to pre-screening,  are not able to get close enough to the US border to declare their intentions to seek asylum to escape the danger they face.

It came as a surprise to everyone, including the individuals leading us on this part of the journey that there were in fact, no asylum seekers on the bridge. Some said that perhaps they had been sent to shelters because of the cold (temperatures in the 30s). Others though speculated that the advance publicity of our journey with the accompanying press might have led to the removal of individuals. We will never know. But, I consider the latter to be more likely.

What we do know is that this nation is severely restricting the granting of asylum to individuals fleeing threats of death in their home countries. I do not believe in an open border nor do I believe that the US should accept every individual for asylum without investigating their situation but the entire tone of this administration to be so increasingly restrictive as to allow so few to be granted asylum goes against the concept of asylum and the principles and values of this nation. It is inhumane and completely insensitive to the realities so many people face.

After we crossed the border back into the USA, I asked one of our guides, Diego, what the one thing he would like me to tell people when I returned. He said: “We’re used to the fence, we’re used to the guards. But, we’re not used to the soldiers and we’re not used to the increasingly confrontational and horrendously disrespectful language used at the border even to US citizens.” Diego, a US citizen, born in El Paso said that on several occasions, he has been stopped in his hometown at traffic stops and asked to show his identification. He said, pointedly, that I would never be stopped.

We then moved on to the principle purpose of our journey; to stand witness outside the gates of the tents set up to house teenagers at Tornillo 45 miles away. Many of those children were brought to Tornillo in the dark of night from other shelters which had become overcrowded. While we were there, several busses with their windows covered drove through the gates so they continue to come. Many of these young people have contact information for their family members in the US but, in most cases, the connection has not been made and restrictions are placed on such contact. And, for some who can make contact, family members are fearful to reunite with their children because of a change in policy which, as they seek this connection, may leave them open to having their status in the US threatened So, as a result, even though the “family separation policy” is said to have stopped, it is de facto still happening and more than 1,000 children sit indefinitely in this tent city. There is supposed to be a limit on how long they should be separated but because the tents are on federal land there is a loophole that permits longer, indefinite stays.

So, we were there to demand that these children be reunited with family. They are not criminals. They do not deserve this type of incarceration and separation. Some were old enough to have traveled to the US alone, some who came with families and were separated from them. Now, they are in a tent city and we know very little about what is truly happening inside. There are some very unsettling reports about what is in fact happening in these camps but entrance and observation is restricted so it does remain a mystery.

The scene for us at Tornillo was truly both heartbreaking and uplifting. There were about 75 people as part of the group led by the rabbis and other clergy from Michigan and cities along the way of the caravan. We were joined by others, including clergy from the area and, most impressively by a large group of high school students from a Catholic school in El Paso. They walked in behind a banner holding the most beautifully worded signs calling for more respect for immigrants and for the unification of families.

The gathering lasted about an hour and the scenes will remain in my memory for a long, long time and you can watch them online. We heard emotional speeches by people who have been to Tornillo every day for months to stand witness and inspiring messages by the clergy. The group consisting of many faiths and all ages sang songs in Hebrew and English and most, including notably these high school students, wiped away tears as we contemplated what was happening in our name.

The group asked to enter the camp but, as expected, this request was denied. But, we were there. And those in charge knew we were there.

It is not easy to get to Tornillo. Look online and see it what it looks like. It is a desert, which of course evokes memories of our own history. It is no coincidence that this is where the children are housed- far away where few see even the structures which contain them. But, we made the trip there to tell them, even if they could not see, that they were not forgotten.

We then returned to El Paso and spent hours in service projects directly aiding those who were in shelters awaiting resolution of their situation. I was part of a group which shopped for and served a dinner to more than 100 people of all ages who looked so tired, so desperate and yet, as you might anticipate, so grateful that someone cared.

I recognize that immigration is a very difficult issue.

But, some things must change.

The belligerent, hate mongering, divisive and racist tone, the militarization of the border and the use of the issue for political advantage can not be the American way.

And, for God’s sake- and our own-, there are the children, left alone in tents. How can we stand idly by and not respond?

And so we did, but we must do more. We must raise our voices as I did in the meeting of the Interfaith Round Table this past week. We must address this issue, as we will do, with our elected officials in meetings beginning this week.

This is not America. The lighted lamp that shines beside the golden door that our ancestors entered, can not be allowed to be extinguished.

We can be wise without being cruel.

We can be protective of our nation while still living up to our better angels.

And, we can never punish or abuse children in this way.

It is interesting that Jacob’s son, Joseph, also had an experience with a stranger which we will read in next week’s Torah portion. The Torah says that a stranger found him and told him that in order to find his brothers he must walk a different path. It is interesting that just like with Jacob when the stranger wrestled with him, this stranger found Joseph and told him a new path was needed.

We didn’t see these children. But, we felt their presence.

In a sense, they found us to tell us that we need to follow a different path as a nation.

We must listen.


Note: The organization that the group partnered with in El Paso is Annuniation House. You can read about their work and how to make donations to support this work at/annunciationhouse.org


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