Across the country hundreds of Jewish organizations including the Baltimore Jewish Council have united to speak out against the Trump administration’s expanded zero tolerance immigration policy, which has seen the separation and detainment of families who entered the United States illegally.
The BJC signed a letter with numerous Jewish organizations opposing the policy and hundreds of Baltimoreans protested downtown last week.
Members of the Jewish community joined protesters who poured onto Gay Street outside of Baltimore’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection office during rush hour on June 20 to support the cause.
The crowd chanted “Shame on you” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
“I’m here to say that my Jewish values are incompatible with the internment of human beings and the separation of families,” said Bennet Wilcox, a Baltimore community organizer for Jews United for Justice.
Just hours before the protest’s 5 p.m. start time and after several days of strong criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation,” meant to end the separation of children from their families.
For Wilcox and others in attendance, Trump’s action did not negate the need for the evening’s protest to continue.
“What we’re seeing right now is that people have been set off and are angry and are not willing to accept any level of inhumanity from our governing officials,” Wilcox said. “Protests need to carry on until we have an immigration system that shows compassion.”
The BJC was one of hundreds of organizations across the nation to sign a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen expressing “strong opposition to the recently expanded ‘zero tolerance’ policy.”
The letter reads in part that, “This policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety of well-being of thousands of people.”
“As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression,” the letter says.
Since 1993 the BJC has held to a position which “rejects the claim that immigrants drain the economy and will overpower American culture,” and in 2004 made an addendum to its policy position reaffirming its “belief that immigrants add to the economic and cultural life of America, and called for a legalization program joined with enhanced security measures.”
Speaking to the JT at the Baltimore rally, activist and former public radio host Marc Steiner said that protest should be viewed in a broader context than simply the separation of families, which is why he and others protested despite Trump’s order.
“It’s beyond that. People are making a stand about what immigration means in America,” said Steiner. “The rights of the people who have been here for a long time who have contributed to this country being arrested and sent out. I think that’s a problem. We’re in a very dangerous time. As an activist but also as a Jew, it’s our turn to protect other people.”
The location of the protest, spilling out of Gay Street into the Holocaust Memorial across the street from the Customs office, held a special significance to the Jews in attendance.
“It is kind of fitting we’re in front of the Holocaust memorial,” said Ben Forstenzer, who was with his wife Renee and their 4-month-old son Gedalya. “It shows that civil society is not just something we can take for granted, it’s able to go off the rails. Things that people think are impossible are unfortunately possible.”
Rabbi Andy Gordon of Bolton Street Synagogue attended the rally, calling it a moral and ethical issue.
“My heart has been aching. The Jewish tradition teaches that we have to love the stranger, and to take care of the widow or the orphan,” Gordon said.
From Gordon’s perspective, the issue of family separation and internment has yielded a strong unity amongst the Jewish community as well as people of other faiths, and in no small part because of the Jewish people’s history.
“The path that our ancestors took, that we were often seen as outsiders that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we’ve dealt with anti-Semitism and persecution. So to see families divided, it’s reminiscent of our past.”
Also in attendance were Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen (D-District 1) and Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah, each of whom expressed that the issue of separating immigrant families isn’t only felt at the southern border, but here in Maryland.
“I’ve had two constituents go to get their meds and get snatched up outside of a Walgreens, then I had a dad drop off his 9-year-old kid at Hampstead Hill Academy and get taken outside of the school,” said Cohen. “While we’re out here protesting against Trump’s policies on the southern border, we need to be cognizant that this is happening right here in Maryland and in Baltimore.”
Vignarajah addressed the group while holding her 1-year-old daughter.
“When the president says today that he is going to put an end to this, we must not end our protest,” she said to enormous applause. “We will not sit silent until we have leaders to will stand up for all Marylanders and all Americans.”
Children, many of whom were infants, accompanied their parents to the protest. For Forstenzer, having his son and wife with him was not a practicality, but a symbol of family unity.
“If we had a sitter we still would have brought our baby,” he said. “Families belong together. Families having a hard time don’t just belong together, they belong together with extra resources and support.”
Waverly resident and Pikesville native Jodie Zisow-McClean held her 6-month-old daughter Miriam against her chest at the protest as she empathized with the parents of nursing infants separated from their mothers.
“As a nursing mother, hearing the stories of nursing mothers being separated from their babies is devastating. As a human, but especially as a new mom,” she said. “Any of the children, but the little ones especially, is hitting very close to home right now.”