A night in lockup to fight immoral immigration system

I never thought I’d go to jail. In fact, my family experience has led me to try to stay as far away as possible from spending time in jail. My grandfather was a prisoner of war and a victim of torture in World War I. My father had a career as a parole officer and an administrator in the New York State prison system.

But, when asked if I would participate in an act of civil disobedience — an act that would likely lead to my arrest in Washington, D.C., alongside more than 200 immigration reform activists, clergy, labor leaders and members of Congress — I felt compelled to say yes.

Why? There are several reasons, but all of them connect to my calling as a rabbi and a Jewish leader. Comprehensive immigration reform is a cause that Jewish Americans should fight for together. Many have already joined, including members of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, which has been advocating across the country for immigration reform.

To begin, I am terribly frustrated by the injustice of the current immigration “system.” Some 11 million people in this country contribute to our economy and strengthen the fabric of our communities, but live without the basic civil rights and protections that the rest of us enjoy. This fundamental injustice cuts against our core values. Every passing day, even during the government shutdown, more than a thousand of our friends, neighbors and loved ones are deported and separated from their families and communities.

In the words of the Rev. Peter Morales, with whom I spent the night in jail, “America’s immigration system isn’t simply broken. It’s immoral.”

I reflected on this as four young “dreamers” next to me were handcuffed while chanting “undocumented and unafraid.” They put my own fear in perspective, and helped me to understand that the role for me and other clergy in the demonstration was to make it safer for others who were taking much bigger risks than we were.

Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is arrested outside the Capitol on Oct. 8. photo/ron sachs

Second, while the vast majority of American Jews and American Jewish organizations support comprehensive immigration reform, our activism on the subject has not been widely noted by our allies in the Latino and immigration rights communities. When I was on Capitol Hill the morning of the rally, a reporter from Telemundo approached me and said, “We’re really interested in the fact that you’re a rabbi — we had no idea that the Jewish community cared about immigration reform.” A fellow arrestee asked a similar question in the middle of the night: Why do Jews care about this?

I had many good conversations with my fellow activists on Oct. 8 as we waited out the long night to be released from the Capitol Police jail. This was a personal fight for many of them, and they were surprised to learn it was personal for me, too.

My grandparents immigrated in the late 1920s during the era of strict quotas designed to keep Jews and other less-desired immigrant groups out. Thankfully they were able to come to these shores — my grandfather from Galicia came circuitously through Canada (draw your own conclusions about his “status”), and my grandmother came from Bessarabia after spending five years stranded in Holland. I explained to my cellmates that all of my family who remained behind in Europe were killed. I owe my life to the fact that my grandparents were able to immigrate here — and many American Jews have a similar debt to this land.

Nor was I the only Jew in that jail cell — many very prominent and proud Jews, like Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois’ 9th district and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, were there too. But they were playing other important roles as prominent Americans — not as representatives of the Jewish community.

That’s where I — and so many of us — have an important role to play. When the Jewish community stands up as Jews, making it clear that we care deeply about this issue, we’re not only standing with this generation of immigrants, but we also are helping to write the next chapter in our country’s history.


Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block is rabbi-in-residence and deputy director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action.