Editor’s note: Rabbi David Stern originally wrote this piece for the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s Rav blog June 21.
By Rabbi David Stern
The mother from Nicaragua stood before our multifaith group of 40 religious leaders this morning in the simple and dignified space of the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, cradling her sleeping infant in her arms. “We are here because my country is no longer safe for my child.”
By this writing, she is already on a bus to San Francisco, her ticket purchased by relatives there, her safe passage arranged by Sister Norma and the remarkable staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
She, like the other families we met in the Respite Center, is among the lucky ones — who can still cradle their babies, who can still play with their children on the colorful mats in the corner, who were able to take their first shower in weeks, to wash off the mud and cold of passage.
It was some combination of chance, powerful love and spiritual commitment that landed mother and child on that westbound bus. The love and commitment of volunteers and faith communities who share time, supplies, food and medical services; and the luck of a given moment on a given day. I asked one of the staff at the Respite Center how that mother and that child could still be together in the face of the administration’s cruel and draconian requirement that children be taken from their parents at the border, and she shrugged: maybe a compassionate border guard, maybe because the child was just a baby, maybe our prayers worked.
We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resource indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.
The president’s recent executive order, while a seeming reversal in the face of public outcry, will not address core injustices. It makes no provision for reuniting the 2,300 already separated children with their families. It offers no change in the fundamental flaws, and smokescreen, of so-called Zero Tolerance. A narrow executive order cannot restore heart to what is heartless.
Our visit today was supposed to conclude with a visit to the Border Detention Center — I had hoped to report to you firsthand about the cages of separation and the conditions there. For reasons not totally clear — some combination of serious flash floods and government bureaucratic confusion — we were not permitted to visit.
So the work of calling for transparency must continue — not only by the 40 leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.
In this week’s parashah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional “lo ta’avor” to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.
But today in McAllen, we outshouted those echoes with the laughter of children, with songs of hope from Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, whites and people of color, locking arms and joining forces to bring a sense of solidarity to a border town, a sense of compassion and justice to our nation. We leave McAllen pledging vigilance for the safety of all children and families, and for the protection of the values precious to us all.
Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.