“Under today’s immigration laws, my family would have been forced to immigrate illegally or not come at all. I don’t know what my life would be like if someone would have deported my grandmother back to Russia. I certainly would not have been able to become a rabbi – would I even have survived?”
This is part of the dvar Torah (sermon) I gave at synagogues in the Philadelphia area while I was working for HIAS Pennsylvania. The more I can make immigration issues real for people and touch their hearts, the more people seem willing to hear what is going on – like the fact that undocumented immigrants haven’t just failed to file a few forms, but many have no forms to file because they have no citizenship options. People are impacted when they can connect with the pain in another person’s eyes – until then, facts and figures don’t make much difference. It is about awakening people’s compassion and opening their hearts – I have found the more I connect immigration issues to congregants’ lives, the more they get on board.
The program that has been most successful is giving a dvar Torah on Shabbat framing immigration as a Jewish issue and then having a Dream Act student speak. When people hear the fear these students experience, the disappointment of not getting a driver’s license, and not being able to attend a four year college (even if they are honors students) – congregants think about how important these things are to their children. Presentations are meant to take people on the journey from “those illegal aliens” to “people I can connect to who are undocumented.”
- Meet with the rabbi in-person – it’s worth your time. Congregants need to see their rabbi is on board. If he/she doesn’t return calls, ask the rabbi’s assistant the best way to reach him/her.
- You can find Dream Act speakers through dreamactivist.org – make sure you ask that they tell their personal story. On Shabbat it shouldn’t be all politics (some legislative information is fine at most non-Orthodox synagogues).
- Connect the issue to Torah – in your talk/dvar Torah, include that the Torah mentions the importance of the stranger 36 times – this means welcoming the stranger is a foundational part of Judaism (it’s significant when the Torah mentions something twice!). Relate your talk to the week’s Torah portion – Jewish calendars say which Torah portion will be covered each Shabbat.
- Give out a 1-page flyer that includes 5-10 simple things they and their synagogue can do to make a difference. Let them know these are practical things they can do after Shabbat. On the back include myths and facts about immigrants.
- Include a question and answer period after. The more compassion you can generate for those who are not on board, the better you will be received.