I joined 100 Jewish community leaders from around the country last week in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. Organized by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, we marched in together, many in Jewish ritual garb, sat down, and sang about building a world of compassion. When the U.S. Capitol Police warned us that we were breaking the law and would be charged with obstruction and “incommoding,” we had a ready response. We sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
My own arrest was shown on MSNBC, reporting our action live to a million viewers and zooming in on the zip ties that the U.S. Capitol police put on my wrists. It took the police forty minutes to move us all and we continued singing down to the last two leaders who were arrested, handcuffed, and led away. Our answer to the police was melodious but not commodious. We were singing and praying for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, that youthful subsection of our population that, from childhood, has known no real home but the United States. One hundred of these young people surrounded our hundred, chanting “Dream Act Now!”
As Rev. Dr. William Barber has inspired the nation with North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays,” this was our “Moral Minyan.” Meanwhile, conservative Congressional leaders have been so afflicted by these young people that they shut down the U.S. Government for three days to avoid giving them a path to citizenship. Congress now faces a deadline of February 8 to act or shut down again. We have much work to do to obtain a clean Dream Act.
My arrest was one of the most empowering days of my life. I stood up when ordered by the Capitol Police and put out my hands for Dreamers, for Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, and for the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), whose regional board I co-chair. JLC has carried out a unique historical struggle for justice, which began with rescuing refugees in Europe in 1934. (Standing beside me in the video is JLC Executive Director Jonathan D. Rosenblum.)
While my hands were pinned behind me, I had a visceral understanding of the vulnerability that others experience with the police. But I was not risking brutality or death. Our arrests resulted in no conviction on our records. We ended up in a frigid police garage for four hours and we had to pay a fine, but we did not truly encounter our country’s criminal justice system. As one man of color commented afterward, this was the easiest arrest he would ever know.
Still, all of the leaders from across the Jewish spectrum, from 18 to 78 years old, took time from their lives and took a risk, not knowing exactly what might happen in the Capitol. Through steadfast loving commitment, spirited singing, and connection with the Dreamers who stood as witnesses, my life felt transformed that day.
Why did I risk getting arrested? I could put my body on the line, but the Dreamers cannot. My arrest did not lead to a conviction. Their arrest could lead to deportation. I wanted the Dreamers to know that we stand with them.
Wearing stickers that read “Jews for Dreamers,” we communicated to these brave immigrants that they are not alone. With tears in their eyes, and solidarity orange knit caps on their heads, they told us how isolated they felt because people in our country have told them they don’t belong here. Our action, our singing, our presence showed that we are with them. This arrest was not about the bravery of the Jewish leaders. It was a way to communicate to our elected officials that the Jewish community, recalling the Biblical injunction to protect the stranger, is solidly with the majority of Americans who polls show overwhelming want to give the Dreamers a path to citizenship.
Congress may have reached an agreement to restore government operations, but our government remains far from an agreement to recognize the contributions of these individuals to our communities. In fact, 90 percent of these Dreamers have jobs, from fast food to the Fortune 500. In order to continue to protect education and work opportunities and facilitate a path to citizenship, we have much work to do. Call your elected officials in Congress and tell them you’re also behind the Dreamers. They need to support a clean Dream Act, with no deal for walls, and no tradeoffs for military budgets.
Many Jews, like myself, recall our own immigrant forebears. We must not betray our ancestors or our American ideals by abandoning children or separating families. We must not become an America of concrete walls and broken dreams.
Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Forward, February 2, 2018.
Barbara Penzner has been Rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, MA since 1995 and is co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee. She is a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and is on the National Mentor Team for CLI (Clergy Leadership Incubator).