The forecast called for rain, but blue, sunny skies shined overhead a group of more than 150 people gathered at Second and Chestnut streets the morning of July 22.
The crowd held signs with messages such as “This is what ‘Never Again’ looks like” and “I am here because of immigrants” as they gathered for a morning of prayer and solidarity on Tisha B’Av for “A Call to Our Conscience” outside of the Immigration Customs Enforcement field offices. The fast day, regarded as the most somber in the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem thousands of years ago.
Or Hadash Congregation joined with HIAS Pennsylvania, Reconstructing Judaism, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and other local synagogues and Jewish organizations to organize the event.
“It felt to me so crucial that there would be an opportunity for the Jewish community to lift up our voice,” Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash said after the event concluded, “to speak up as a community against these policies that are so inimical to everything that this country is supposed to stand for and to everything we stand for as a people.”
He cited the mitzvah repeated numerous times in the Torah to welcome the stranger and how it has manifested a certain resonance for many amid the changing laws and attitudes toward refugees across the country.
He acknowledged Philly’s June 30 iteration of the larger immigration protests that took place across the country but noted it fell on a Saturday, restricting some Shabbat-observant Jews — like him — from attending.
Waxman put the event on Facebook and sent a message through a listserv but did not anticipate the large group that ended up occupying the Old City sidewalk, just blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
“It clearly resonated with something people deeply wanted,” he said. “It’s a fast day, and there was pouring rain that was forecast. … It was not necessarily an obvious thing to be here, but people clearly felt so moved that they wanted to be here and for me, that was just very both gratifying and humbling to be able to put out that call and to hear so many people who wanted to be able to respond.”
Having the rally on Tisha B’Av carried particular significance for many.
A day of mourning, the holiday also represents a chance for reflection, as many of the morning’s speakers noted.
Esther Sobel and Carol Gantman stood together before the event began and reflected on the timing; Gantman also held a violet magenta sign distributed by T’ruah with a quote from the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot across its front: “Silence is akin to complicity.”
“This is the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, and Jews generally gather to talk about the times of destruction in our people’s history,” said Gantman, who serves as vice president of HIAS PA. “Those of us who are here believe that separating families, children from their mothers and fathers, is another sign of destruction that we want to speak out against.”
Gabby Goodman held a handmade sign that read, “Whatever happened to … I lift my lamp beside the golden door?!”
“So many Jewish people came here and suffered, but also benefited from being able to rise up into society,” Goodman said, “and other people need that chance very, very badly, and I want to be an ally for that.”
Emma Lazarus’ presence was felt among the many signs quoting her famous poem. The day also marked what would’ve been her 169th birthday, a date that inspired BZBI member Rosa Esquenazi to carry a sign she’s hoisted since the Women’s March in 2017, shaped like a torch, with Lazarus’ words: “From her beacon hand glows worldwide welcome.”
Throughout the morning, following a harmonizing kick-off of “Eli Tzion” — one of the traditional songs of the Tisha B’Av liturgy — speakers interspersed testimonies from mothers and children held at detention centers such as in Berks County with chapters from the Book of Lamentations.
The crowd, a collection of clergy and demonstrators of various ages, used the light blue program notes as fans in the unexpected sunny humidity and stayed mostly silent during the various short but passionate speeches. Blanca Pacheco, assistant director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, led a moment of silence and shared her personal story of leaving Ecuador and not being able to return, even to say goodbye to her father.
“The immigration system is broken,” Pacheco said as she shared names and stories of separated children and parents.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS PA, received resounding applause as she spoke about the process of seeking asylum.
“All persons who are on U.S. soil, regardless of legal status, are entitled to due process of law,” she said. The crowd clapped in affirmation and shouts of “Yes!” and “That’s right” reverberated.
Rabbi David Teutsch and Betsy Teutsch related the messages of Tisha B’Av and the Holocaust to the morning’s events.
“We know that there have been so many times that Jews have been victims and the only thing that saved them was people helping them, so this is our opportunity to stand up and help other people,” said Betsy Teutsch, holding a sign that read “‘Indivisible with liberty and justice for all’ = no exceptions!”
“When we say ‘never again,’ it isn’t just never again to Jews — it needs to be never again to anyone,” she said. “Our country is treating immigrants with such cruelty and maybe that’s what America is, but it’s also a country of generosity and compassion and that’s what we are nurturing today.”
Daniel Weisman, a member of Congregation Or Hadash, said in an unpublished op-ed he submitted to the Jewish Exponent that fixing immigration problems would take time.
“Let’s get practical. The key is to be persistent and think in the long term. One march or demonstration will not do much by itself except make the participants feel good about themselves and of course engage in a common practice,” he wrote.
“That’s a good start, but what’s next? Ongoing actions over a long period of time will make a difference. It may be frustratingly slow to work with people to try to change minds. Nevertheless, doing so can work to achieve the goals we want to achieve.”