elisa and mimi hug, smiling
Elisa, daughter of Honduran refugees aided by Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, holds Mimi, daughter of Kehilla congregants. (Photo/Julie Litwin)

Sanctuary synagogues: another way to help refugees

When President Trump ordered a ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries and blocked refugees from entering the United States, Jews voiced opposition, many joining marches, protesting at airports and signing petitions. The four major Jewish denominations came out against the order, and Jewish institutions have been holding informational and advocacy discussions ever since.

Now, a handful of congregations have gone further, declaring themselves sanctuary synagogues.

Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont has been a self-declared sanctuary synagogue since the 1980s, when members reached out to help immigrants fleeing war in Central America. The synagogue board renewed its commitment to refugees in November, according to Julie Litwin, who co-chairs the synagogue’s immigration committee.

“Kehilla was founded as being very focused on social activism, and that’s always been an important part of who we are,” she said. “It’s really something we feel very passionate about.”

She said that though the shul is not able to harbor refugees, the community is “considering the possibility” of making such arrangements.

“We’re looking at all the different issues that would come into play, and it would be a more difficult thing to do,” she said. “We certainly are very supportive of other congregations that are willing to do that.”

While the word “sanctuary” implies physically sheltering persons at risk of deportation, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, which partners with religious organizations, such as Kehilla and the Jewish Community Relations Council, has a more sweeping definition.

These expanded criteria include networks of rapid response to immigration raids; advocacy on behalf of immigrants; and legal and other practical assistance.

San Francisco and Santa Clara declared themselves sanctuary counties years ago, meaning local government will not cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. It’s become a wedge issue between the federal and local governments, particularly after Trump signed a recent executive order to eliminate federal funding to “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

Last week, the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Santa Clara’s legal challenge to the executive order.

“Trust and cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant and minority communities is critical to public safety and central to the success of community policing,” said ADL director Seth Brysk. “Such a break-down of trust and cooperation invariably leads to increased crime — particularly hate crime — rather than ‘enhanced public safety’ as the order is named.”

There are many things in the Torah that we can debate, but this is a fairly sound ethical principle.

Kehilla and Oakland’s Temple Sinai are the only Bay Area congregations to declare themselves sanctuary synagogues in the Trump era. But others are considering it, according to their rabbis. Several cited halachic reasons for such a move.

“The Torah gives us an ethical responsibility to care for fellow human beings,” said Rabbi Marcy Delbick of Temple Beth El in Salinas. “There are many things in the Torah that we can debate, but this is a fairly sound ethical principle.”

Delbick said Beth El was discussing the possibility of becoming a sanctuary synagogue; its Salinas location puts it close to many undocumented immigrants who would likely be at risk of deportation.

Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel said it would be the right move for his congregation as well. “Knowing some of the people in the community, it would be a terrible mistake not to,” he said. “Our congregation should do what it can to protect our [larger] community.”

Other rabbis are more circumspect.

Rabbi Joel Landau of Congregation Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in S.F., said the issue had not come up for discussion in his community. On a personal level, he expressed concerns about how refugees and undocumented immigrants are being treated by the government.

“This particular issue is a mixed bag,” he said. “Indiscriminately breaking up families, that’s clearly a big problem… the vast majority of Jews came here legally, and I think everyone else should as well. At the same time there are human situations that need special attention.”

Whether they adopt the label of sanctuary synagogue, some congregations are doing the work anyway.

San Francisco Congregation Sha’ar Zahav declared itself a sanctuary synagogue in the 1980s to help refugees fleeing war and violence in Central America. It was temporary, and so far the synagogue has not made such a formal declaration again.

Still, they’re talking about it. And like other congregations, they are participating in marches, offering rapid response training and providing assistance to refugees.

“It does make taking action easier, that we have no Trump supporters,” said congregational president Michael Chertok of Sha’ar Zahav’s membership. “It’s easier to organize and take action.”

Several synagogue leaders expressed concern over the legal consequences of declaring themselves sanctuaries, fearing retribution or federal prosecution for harboring undocumented immigrants.

S.F. immigration attorney Caleb Arring says they need not worry. Unless Trump reconfigures Immigrations and Customs Enforcement procedures, it is unlikely sanctuary synagogues would face legal problems. While it’s possible to prosecute citizens for harboring an undocumented immigrant, it’s rare in practice, according to Arring.

“I’m honestly not sure that ICE would know what to do,” he said.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a staff writer at J. He can be reached at max@jweekly.com.