Welcoming the Stranger: Congregation Beth Israel Provides Forum for Learning, Reflection on Immigration
By Tonyia Cone
Vivian Ballard’s father survived the Holocaust by his wits. While living on the margins of society, he picked up soldiers’ castoff clothing, spoke German and let people make assumptions about who he was.
“When I was a kid, I knew there was something I couldn’t grasp in his life,” explained Ballard, who eventually learned of her father’s past.
Born in Austria, Ballard’s father came to the United States as a stateless person in 1947, when he was only 17 years old. He became a U.S. citizen after serving in the Korean War.
Like Ballard, many American Jews know how and when their family came to the United States. Welcoming the Stranger, a symposium at Congregation Beth Israel over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, served as an opportunity for more than 200 community members to share these stories, hear the personal stories of others, and explore immigration from a variety of perspectives.
“We all have an immigration story in our background. It behooves us to remember that,” Ballard said. “When other people come from the same or worse, how can I say go back?”
Rabbi Rebecca Epstein explained that the idea to offer the three-day program came about after the election.
“We wanted to try to respond as a community to the rhetoric and divisiveness around issues of immigration and refugees that we saw in the public sphere. We wanted to take a weekend as a congregation to focus on these issues, not only to act on them, but also to reflect on the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger and to figure out what the connections are between that ancient value that's in the Torah and what’s happening today,” Epstein said.
Epstein explained that she and the symposium’s planning committee tried to assemble programming that balanced many sides of complex immigration issues. The weekend was meant to give congregants and those in the broader community a chance to hear from some people who are affected by issues of immigration, refugees, and those in leadership positions trying to contend with some of the issues.
Keynote speaker Julian Aguilar, a journalist with the Texas Tribune and an El Paso native, screened the documentary “Beyond the Wall,” explained his experience working to provide balanced coverage of border issues, and discussed the economics of Texas border security.
Another session included Joseph Chacon, Austin Police Department assistant chief of police, who talked about the department’s policies in regards to asking for immigration status and working with immigrant communities.
“I tried to make it something people from different parts of the political spectrum would feel comfortable coming to and would feel like their voice was represented and that they could maybe have the opportunity to learn and grow from hearing different viewpoints,” said Epstein, noting that the program purposely did not include a panel with speakers of different opinions pitted against one another.
The schedule also included Mayor Steve Adler, who discussed the definition of sanctuary city and the perception of Austin as a sanctuary city; Virginia Raymond, legal director of Justice for Our Neighbors, who discussed asylum seekers; and Madeline Hsu, a Center for Asian American Studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who talked about migration as a human right and Frederick Douglass as an advocate for equal rights for Asian Americans.
Clergy members were involved as well. Rabbi David Segal, Texas consultant for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was featured at Friday night’s Shabbat service and Saturday Torah study, five clergy members held an interfaith service Saturday morning, and CBI’s Rabbi Sam Rose shared a Talmudic perspective on “Should We Build a Wall?”
Organizations represented included American Gateways, Refugee Services of Texas and Austin Sanctuary Network.
Epstein explained that the committee wanted to give people a chance to listen, dialogue and ask questions, and “really grow and learn by hearing from people who are going through it.”
The weekend kicked off with an opportunity to do just that, to sit down for a Shabbat dinner with recent immigrants living in Austin and hear one another’s family immigration stories.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals administrative program recipient and activist Juan Belman and Sulma Franco, a Guatemalan activist for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights who took sanctuary in First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and was granted a stay of removal by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2015, explained their stories in the session “Voices of Immigrants Today.”
Saturday evening, participants had the opportunity to step out of their own comfort zones at the Sahara Lounge in East Austin, where club owner Eileen Bristol discussed why she created the lounge, musician Abou Sylla told of his immigration to the United States, and those at the lounge experienced a night of West African food and music.
Family programming included Sedrick Ntwali, who shared with second through fifth grade Sunday school students his story of fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, living in Uganda as a refugee, and resettling in the United States. Older students watched “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” a documentary about how and why millions of immigrants journeyed across the world to Ellis Island, hoping for a better life for themselves and their descendants, and “I Am Here,” an Austin teen-made film about ICE deportation fears.
Robert Abzug, Audre and Bernard Rapoport regents chair of Jewish studies and professor of history and American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, personalized history throughout his discussion of Jewish immigration to the United States leading up to the Holocaust as he showed photos and documents from his family.
Abzug chronicled Jewish immigration, and showed that while in 1818, only 3,000 Jews lived in the United States, almost 100 years later in 1914, just before the commencement of World War I, 3,300,000 Jews, 3.2 percent of the population, lived in the United States. By 1946, the number of Jews increased to approximately 5.1 million Jews, or 3.6 percent of the country’s population. Like those seeking asylum today, historically, Jewish refugees fled persecution in their home countries and faced stereotypes, quotas and discrimination upon arrival in the United States.
Temple Beth Shalom members Ilene Gray and Joe Strouse attended and financially supported the symposium. Gray, who noted that TBS has had a welcome team and a refugee task force, found the weekend inspiring and valued the chance to connect with Segal of the RAC.
“As Jews, many of us have it embedded in our DNA what it means to be a refugee and an immigrant. I have stories of my grandparents, vaguely whispered stories about pogroms and sneaking on ships and falsified papers and struggle and trauma, so I think the plight of the immigrants and the refugees hits hard with a lot of Jews,” Gray said. “The plight of the stranger has always just resonated.” ■