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A Texas Synagogue's Response to the Ongoing Immigration Debate

A Texas Synagogue's Response to the Ongoing Immigration Debate

Rabbi Epstein headshot

Here in Austin, Texas, issues of immigration often take center stage in our everyday lives.  Austin is known as a “Sanctuary City” – a label given to cities that prioritize local law enforcement over federal immigration enforcement, even while complying with federal laws.  Austin’s UT campus became a focus when the many DACA students enrolled here feared they would be deported when DACA was first overturned.  Austin is home to many resettled refugees and asylees.  Living not so far from the longest continuous stretch of the US-Mexico border, we wonder how the proposed wall would affect our economy and culture.  And, being in Texas’ capital, we are often called upon to visit the capital and make our views known as elected officials debate these issues at the state level. 

Our synagogue wanted to respond as a community.  We asked, how could we enact the value of “Welcoming the Stranger” as it pertains to issues of immigration?  How could we reflect on them together, by hearing from those directly affected?  How could we engage our teens and kids in applying the lessons of their own history to today?

Photo courtesy of Nick Wagner / Austin-American Statesman

A dedicated committee worked together for more than six months to put together an incredible three-day program devoted to learning, reflecting, and acting on issues of immigration.  Friday night featured a delicious Shabbat dinner catered by an Guatemalan asylee food truck owner, a Moroccan restaurant interested in supporting our endeavor, and an Italian restaurant which is part of the “Sanctuary Restaurant” movement.  Over 200 attendees from our synagogue, Austin’s refugee community, and the Turkish Raindrop House, shared personal immigration stories over the meal.  Our guest speaker for Shabbat services was Texas’ RAC organizer, Rabbi David Segal.  Rabbi Segal reminded us that many Jews survived the Holocaust because of the illegal actions of those who took them in as refugees or transported them across borders, and that for Jews, love is an action, not just a feeling. 

Shabbat featured Torah study with Rabbi Segal, an interfaith service, and several speakers including a DACA recipient/activist, a journalist who covers the Texas border, Austin’s Mayor and Assistant Police Chief, two professors of history, an immigration lawyer, and an asylee who took sanctuary in a local church for several months.  After Shabbat, about 30 gathered at an African bar, and listened to a musician from tell his story about fleeing to America.  On Sunday, our religious school students and their families met a refugee from the Congo, made welcome cards in different languages for a refugee resettlement organization to give to their clients, and mapped their own immigration journeys.  Our teens watched a film about undocumented teens in Austin who are afraid their parents will be deported – and then had a dialogue with the teen filmmakers.  Meanwhile, adults learned about the logistics and legalities of becoming a sanctuary community as they considered what it would look like for our synagogue to take on such an endeavor.

It was truly a powerful weekend of sharing stories, reflecting on Torah values, learning deeply, and giving back.  We strengthened our community, both within our synagogue and beyond our walls.  Energized by the weekend, we can’t wait to continue the sacred work of welcoming the stranger.  

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein serves as Director of Education at Congregation Beth Israel of Austin, Texas. She is passionate about bringing the community together around issues of social justice by promoting dialogue, awareness, and action.  

Published: 2/14/2018