Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Buttons and pamphlets that greeted people attending the inaugural event at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit’s Social Action Committee. (Credit: Robert Kalfus)

Against a background photo of Brownsville, Texas, volunteers serving approximately 1,500 meals daily to refugees on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, Merrill Zack, vice-president, community engagement, HIAS, a Jewish organization supporting immigrants. (Credit: Robert Kalfus)

(l-r) Recent immigrants Heidy Lazcano, translating for her mother, Myrna Lazcano, and Marti Michael, a volunteer who discussed her work with Jews for Justice at the US-Mexico border, and her work with Team Brownsville (Texas). (Credit: Robert Kalfus)

Rabbi Steven Exler, rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, moderating the panel discussion at the Social Action Committee’s inaugural event at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit. (Credit: Robert Kalfus)

Marti Michael, speaking about her volunteer work cooking and delivering meals to asylum seekers located on the Mexico side of the border. (Credit: Robert Kalfus)


A panel discussion titled “Jewish Values and the Immigration Crisis” was held at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale on Saturday evening, December 14. Sixty people heard presentations from a recent immigrant, a Riverdalian contributing her time to helping refugees at the border, and from a representative of HIAS, a Jewish resettlement organization.

Responding to the congregation’s interest in immigration issues, Rabbi Steven Exler spearheaded this presentation to understand what is happening today at the southern border and to put the issue into a Jewish context. Jews in the United States are perhaps the quintessential immigrants, whose experiences were enshrined in the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’s famous “The New Colossus” at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Late 19th- and early 20th-centuries Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, along with Italians, Chinese and Irish, scared Americans with their foreignness: they weren’t even considered “white,” and were subject to institutional racism and restrictive legislation. Only after World War II, when isolationist laws barred Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany from finding safe harbor here, did the country awaken to the dire consequences of these policies. Laws in the USA dating to the 1960s and 1980s revised immigration policy to integrate the lessons learned from the country’s actions during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Steven Exler introduced the speakers, setting the topic in a traditional context. He talked about the biblical commandment to defend the stranger, even when it is difficult to do so, even when we are scared of the outcome. Merrill Zack, vice president for community affairs at HIAS, talked about the history of immigration to the USA since the 19th century. She described how America recognized that its failure to admit more European Jewish refugees contributed to the Holocaust. In the years after the war, American and international policies were enacted to protect refugees. These policies remain in place, she noted, though current government policy diverges from the intent and letter of these laws.

Marti Michael, former director of the Riverdale Y, movingly described her growing commitment to volunteering in support of refugees. Marti recently spent time at the Mexico border, where she helped hundreds of families seeking asylum released in Texas every day, dirty, tired, hungry, and without any resources. And earlier this year, after the government set new policies that prevented asylum seekers from entering the country while waiting for their hearing, she traveled to Matamoros with volunteers from Team Brownsville to feed and clothe families in the refugee camps that sprung up close by the border. Her descriptions of the tens of thousands sheltering there in makeshift tents in cold weather, constantly living under threat of gang violence, kidnapping and extortion, were harrowing.

Finally, Myrna Lazcano spoke movingly about her own experiences as an immigrant, with her daughter Heidy as her interpreter. Myrna’s saga of immigration, expulsion and return was laced with the deep emotion of a mother seeking to reunite with her children. Myrna’s story touches on many experiences common to many refugees today: she was detained in degrading, squalid federal facilities, she traveled with a caravan back to the USA, and she lives today with the uncertainty of her ultimate status as her case makes its way slowly through the system. Her experiences led her to devote herself to improving the lives of other recent immigrants.

The evening program was the maiden event from the Hebrew Institute’s Social Action Committee, a group of volunteers who are working with Rabbi Exler and the clergy to develop programming that offers opportunites to congregants to get involved with helping other communities in the Bronx and further afield.

By Michael Goldblum

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