We Must Bear Witness to our Moral Failure

Cantor Jason Kaufman
on August 2, 2019

I recently traveled to Homestead, Florida, where I stood outside one of the many child detention centers our government is funding.

I went to Homestead thinking I was there solely to protest this heinous for-profit facility that is imprisoning children. However, as I stood across the street from the detention camp, balancing on top of a ladder so I could see into the facility, I realized that I was actually there in solidarity with the children and to publicly show them that they were loved and we were fighting for them. I was trying to make sure they felt, even for a brief moment, cared for and not forgotten. I will never forget what I saw and how I felt that day. It will animate me for as long as God gives me the ability to bear witness and affect change in this world.

I’m proud to be the Cantor at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, a community with a long history of working for refugee resettlement and immigration justice over many decades. Recently, we have partnered with HIAS on various projects.  We recently sponsored an Afghan refugee family as they resettled in Alexandria and we opened our synagogue doors to a school for Afghan immigrants. We have been involved with the work of immigrant justice for a long time and we will continue to be. Why? Because we are humans and people of conscience and because we are Jews.  Our values demand nothing less.

I grew up in 1980’s American Judaism. My Jewish education was largely about the Holocaust. It was about asking “How could it have ever happened?” It was about listening to survivors, honoring their stories, and bearing witness to their pain. It was a Judaism that taught me over and over that “Never Again” was our rallying cry as Jews.  It was this education that woke me up one morning and demanded that I go to Homestead.

I didn’t have any idea what I was going to encounter or even what my trip’s ultimate purpose was. Yet, I knew I needed to be there, to bear witness, and to honor the spirit of “Never Again” that we as a Jewish community have been taught since childhood.

As I stood outside the detention center, I didn’t see the ridiculous, incessant political infighting that is plaguing our country and lowering our nation’s moral standing by the day. I saw children.  Refugees. Asylum-seeking kids. Separated from their families. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of kids, walking one by one, single file. I saw children imprisoned by systemic evil and by the collective ability of our country to turn a blind eye to their pain.

The story and the cruelty that led to these children being imprisoned and separated from their families is incredibly complicated. Yet, we must not allow the difficulty of solving this crisis to prevent us from engaging with it or seeing it for what it is: a for-profit humanitarian crisis of our government’s making.

As I stood on that ladder, I held a large red heart, a symbol of love that crosses all language barriers. Those of us standing across from the detention center waved, smiled, and blew kisses to the children beyond the fence. Every now and then a child would wave back to us, usually when they were away from the watchful eyes of the prison guards.  Some would pump their fists in the air while others would make a heart with their hands. I’m not sure how much these children understood about their situation, but it was clear they knew we were there to support them. In that moment, I understood what it meant to bear sacred witness.

Image of man standing in front of Homestead with a large, red heart

While the pain of watching this human rights atrocity can feel unbearable, we must refuse to look away. Since returning home, I have felt it imperative to join with others to do everything in our power to amplify the story of this crisis. I have reached out to my elected officials, met with local community leaders, and joined an incredible team of clergy and lay leaders to create new ways that our synagogue can engage in this work. It is in this spirit that I write this article, hoping that you will not just join in this work but also ask all those in your community and your professional circle to do so as well. This humanitarian crisis is so vast and systemic that it can feel overwhelming to engage with it; and yet as people of conscience, we must.

If you can go to a detention center and bear witness, please go. There is unimaginable power in bearing witness. What we see can’t be denied by others and it must spur us to further action.

If you can speak to your legislators or anyone of influence to denounce the imprisonment of innocent children and voice your support for the closure of these camps, please do so. Send an email. Call their office. Write a letter. Put a concrete marker down showing where you stand on this issue.

If you are involved in a synagogue, ask your congregation what they are doing to be part of the solution. There is work to be done in response to this crisis in every corner of the United States. I’m proud to be part of a community that is partnering with numerous local immigrant justice organizations. For example, on a recent Shabbat, we walked door-to-door passing out “Know Your Rights” literature to our immigrant neighbors who are vulnerable to ICE raids.  This was a small, yet tangible way for us to help our community and for our congregants to know exactly where we stand on issues of immigrant justice.

If you’ve never been involved in politics, now is the time. Find a campaign that inspires you and give your all to that candidate. The only way to create systemic change and eradicate the numerous injustices of this present administration is to put the right people in leadership. This is beyond partisanship. Our values are on the ballot. When casting your vote – in local, state, and federal elections – choose candidates who support overturning this terrible immigration system.

As our nation plunges further into chaos, we can feel empowered knowing that we are still in control of how we respond to this reality. We can still choose compassion, kindness, love, and justice. We can still choose to be welcoming. We can still choose how we treat our neighbors. In the Jewish wisdom literature, Pirkei Avot, it says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” I would update this to say, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be a human.” The crisis we face is one driven by a lack of humanity, and in our response, we must call on each other and our leaders to be human.

Cantor Jason Kaufman serves at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, VA. He is on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors, is a member of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet, and is on the Union for Reform Judaism Commission on Social Action.

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