Jewish Community Reacts to Family Separation

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Jesse Bacon and his daughter, Ronia, at the Rittenhouse Square rally. Ronia made her own sign, her father proudly noted. | Photo provided

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox community leader in Arizona, typifies much of the visceral Jewish response to the since repealed — but not completely solved — Trump administration policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents at the border.

“One of the many days that I cannot remove from my head or heart was when I was recently visiting children living in a detention facility who crossed the border fleeing violence and/or poverty,” he wrote in a blog post on Ritualwell.org after his visit. “They were lost, confused and terrified for their lives. They just wanted to find their parents and a safe bed to sleep in.”

Prior to President Trump’s reversal late last week, upward of 2,300 migrant children had been placed in detention centers, separated from their parents. The administration’s new policy states that families will be detained together, although that may not survive legal challenges.


It remains to be seen how separated parents will reunite with their detained children, some of whom have been sent to various locations in Pennsylvania. (At least nine children who federal immigration authorities removed from their parents have already been placed in a shelter in the Lehigh Valley, per a report from WHYY.)

While some on the right have been supportive of the administration’s hardline stance — Trump recently called for undocumented immigrants to be denied due process and face immediate deportation — many like Yanklowitz in the Jewish community locally and nationwide have staked out fierce opposition through a combination of rallies, protests and other acts.

Twenty-six Jewish groups of all denominations signed a June 12 letter, coordinated by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen calling for a more humane solution to the immigration problem.

“This policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people,” the letter reads. “As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression. We believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of this nation.”

The ADL also released a video in which Rachelle Goldstein, co-director of the Hidden Child Foundation, and her husband, Jack, discuss the lingering after-effects children can feel from being torn from their families at a young age.

They would know — they were separated from their own families during the Holocaust when they were 3 and 9, respectively.

“How can this happen in the 21st century?” Rachelle Goldstein asked.

“Clearly, what we have seen in the last few weeks are deplorable,” said ADL Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer, “but more importantly, I don’t think that this is a ‘Jewish’ issue as much as it’s an ‘everyone’ issue. … This is an issue everyone in America should be concerned about.”

Other local Jewish groups and individuals have called for action as well.

During a visit to Philadelphia on June 19, Vice President Mike Pence found himself the target of a mass protest at Rittenhouse Square, while heading to the nearby Rittenhouse Hotel.

A crowd of 2,000 people filled the park, many wielding signs denouncing the policy; some brought children’s shoes to represent those currently being detained.

Another protest was slated for June 30 at noon in front of the regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jesse Bacon, a member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, attended the Rittenhouse rally with his family, including his two daughters, Ronia, 10, and Adira, 3.

“There’s a particular resonance for Jewish people,” he said, “in some of the Nazi-like imagery and detention camps and separating of the families — these are all things from our Jewish history [that] we are alert to and attuned to and hopefully able to stop from happening to anyone else.”

Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, emphasized the importance of education in addition to donating and rallying.

She and other organizations have created messaging and graphics to share information and debunk policies, such as the false claims Trump has made that he is “forced” to separate families.

A key piece of legislation she cited is the Flores settlement, which placed limits on how and how long the government could detain child migrants (a piece of legislation that came up when Obama tried to detain whole families crossing the border). However, it applies to minors who arrived unaccompanied, unlike the children being detained.

The organization has been working with the newly unaccompanied children who are taken to the local area shelters in addition to the kids already being served there by HIAS. Miller-Wilson said a staff attorney went for a regular Know Your Rights session and met the new arrivals. Upon asking a 7-year-old girl her name, the child burst into tears.

“Obviously, we’ve been horrified,” she said. “Not only the separation of children from their parents, which is terrible and draconian, but also the justification is calling people criminals who are seeking asylum. They’re not criminals. And the kind of continued insistence on this false narrative is very distressing.”

Social media, too, has been flooded with comparisons to the Holocaust.

“ADL always says that individuals should be extremely careful when they draw comparisons to the Holocaust or the Nazi regime,” Baron-Baer noted. “Perhaps though, instead of us arguing among ourselves whether or not a particular comparison like the separation policy crosses a line, maybe we need to learn that all of us, all good people need to speak out clearly and quickly when abhorrent actions are taken like this by anyone in power against any group.”

Miller-Wilson said that while she does not want to make comparisons lightly, particularly due to her own family history, there are definite illuminating similarities — most notably in the rhetoric.  

“This administration is treating these people like non-people, and that’s how it begins,” she said. The president has used glaring language in many of his recent tweets, calling asylum-seeking immigrants “animals” or “criminals” and claiming they are “infesting” and invading the country.

“That was the propaganda that was used, that Jews were not people,” she added. “The lesson we should have learned from World War II is you don’t treat people like they’re not people, regardless of what the circumstances are. And that’s exactly what is happening.” 

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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