Immigration returns to communal agenda

New Jersey Jewish News

By Johanna Ginsberg

February 13, 2013

Last year, when an American Jewish Committee poll asked Jewish voters to list their three most important issues, immigration tied (with church-state issues) for last place.

Earlier this month, when Mark Hetfield took over as new CEO of HIAS, the Jewish immigration group, he acknowledged that his organization until recently “had declared immigration reform dead.”

His colleague Melanie Nezer, HIAS senior director of U.S. policy and advocacy, explained, “It’s hard to rally the troops and maintain engagement when nothing is happening. You could follow an issue, but you couldn’t really take any action.”

Only a year and a half ago, just 10 people showed up to attend a panel on immigration reform at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, sponsored by AJC’s NJ region.

“We can’t figure out why Jews are not interested,” Allyson Gall, then director of the region, said in an interview shortly after that event. Jews “see it as a border issue, a general security issue.”

But if these immigrants disappear, she said, Jews will begin to ask, “‘Where is my lawn guy? Where is my day care person? Why is my hotel room not clean? Where’s the cleaning lady?’ We Jews need a wakeup call. We need to realize we’re dependent on immigrants who come in and do these jobs.”

But if immigration seemed to have faded away as a Jewish communal priority before last November’s election, it may be making a comeback. The “enormous impact” of Latino voters in the 2012 presidential election has “changed everything,” said Nezer, creating the possibility of bipartisan reform and heartening Jewish groups that have long called for fair and just immigration reform.

With the Senate working on legislation spanning the aisle, “We’re getting to hit the rewind button,” said Hetfield.

The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a loose coalition of more than 25 groups, has selected immigration as its focus issue for this year. Its members include HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Hazon, National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish World Service, and New Israel Fund as well as the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

In general, Jewish organizations have praised President Obama’s reform proposals, calling for enforcement of current laws and creating a path to citizenship. Last month, the Jewish Federations of North America called for “fair and compassionate immigration reform and to advance the support for refugee and resettlement assistance, such as for those fleeing from persecution in Iran.”

“You just wouldn’t have a range of Jewish groups involved in this issue if it wasn’t possible” to have an impact, said Nezer, adding that with national organizations on board, she believes local branches will begin to pick up grassroots support.

Meanwhile, since Gall’s retirement last June, AJC’s new NJ director, John Rosen, has redesigned the regional office’s approach to immigration. The new strategy involves creating broad support among business leaders for immigration reform and sponsoring small parlor meetings in people’s homes to generate interest in and build support for immigration reform in the Jewish community. “After a dozen programs for 30 people each, we’ll be more likely to get buy-in for a bigger program,” said Amy Hollander, assistant director for outreach and communication at NJ AJC. The timing of the current legislation hasn’t hurt, either, she acknowledged. A parlor meeting held in a home in Short Hills that was expected to draw about 45 people drew about 65 instead. “We were shocked,” said Hollander. It took place just after Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made their respective announcements with regard to immigration policy.

For the business campaign, NJ AJC is organizing a forum to take place Thursday, April 4, at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies in Madison. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has already agreed to cosponsor the event, and AJC is hoping to sign on the NJ Chamber of Commerce and the Indian-Asian Chamber of Commerce as well.

It will feature keynote speaker Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners advocating immigration reform. A panel of industry leaders will address issues relating to highly skilled immigrants, agricultural and temporary workers, undocumented workers in the hospitality industry, and unions and will include a panelist who will offer a personal perspective.

‘The right thing’

The issue is already beginning to bubble in other ways on the local front.

Rabbi Avi Friedman of the Summit Jewish Community Center is among local rabbis who have taken up the issue. He wrote about immigration in the Jan. 13 issue of that synagogue’s bulletin. Focusing on the historical experience of Jews as “strangers in a strange land,” he reminded his congregants that the Conservative movement has adopted a stance in favor of immigration reform.

“The Torah is very clear about how we ought to treat immigrants,” he wrote, quoting reminders in Exodus that the Israelites “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” He called for the “loosening of immigration restrictions” on those coming from Mexico.

At Bnai Keshet in Montclair, director of education Rabbi Ariann Weizman will teach a course on immigration beginning in several weeks, the third in a series on the intersection of current events and Jewish texts. Although she has taught classes on social justice in the past, this will mark the first time she will focus on immigration.

“When we brainstormed last April, we knew this was a live issue, and that people were talking about it going into the presidential race,” Weizman said. With the course designed to coincide with Passover, she said, “I hope people will come away with some new ideas to take into their seders, and to think about the text we read on Passover and what’s behind it.”

In May, a naturalization ceremony for 25 new citizens will be held at the Jewish Educational Center’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy in Elizabeth. The idea to offer the school for the event came from Adina Abramov, a U.S. citizen originally from Canada, who was inspired to pitch the idea while observing her eighth-grade son studying questions immigrants must answer to become citizens. “This is a topic that is very relevant,” she said, pointing out that so many American Jews are either new immigrants or second- or third-generation Americans. “We even have some parents of JEC students who are actually undergoing this process at present.”

She added, “As Jews, most of us know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. The United States has been very good to us as a people. We have a lot to be grateful for, and we welcome this opportunity to give back and welcome the newest immigrants to this country with open arms. There is a world of opportunity awaiting them, and we are grateful to be in a position to be the ones hosting this very momentous and life-changing ceremony.”

And that is not to mention, as Gall pointed out, that advocating for immigration rights — from supporting efforts to make seasonal workers legal to simply focusing on human rights and labor issues, “is just the right thing to do.” As Hollander put it, “For the Jewish community, civil rights has always been an issue, and this is the civil rights issue and the social issue of our age.”