For Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including the fraught conditions in federal detention centers, bring to mind one of the Torah’s best-known stories: Pharaoh’s decree that all Israelite baby boys be killed and thrown into the Nile, as part of his plan to enslave and reduce the population of Jews in Egypt.
“If a government, or whoever, can get away with attacking human children, then slowly people conclude they must not be human," said Waskow, 85. “... It’s the way Pharaoh educated the non-Hebrew Egyptians to be willing to support genocide.”
The account in Exodus’ first chapter has been a call to action for the renowned activist rabbi from Mount Airy, as has the directive of Deuteronomy 23:16-17. “If someone fleeing a master who is cruel or violent comes to you, do not send him back," Waskow said. “Do not deport him, we would say in our language."
As President Donald Trump continues to toughen his policies toward immigrants, particularly those who mass at the southwest border, Jews in the Philadelphia area and across the country are escalating their protests and public actions to levels that, some say, have not been seen since the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Many of them will be participating in a Jewish-run vigil at the Liberty Bell on Sunday. It will coincide with the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temples, and use the fast’s liturgy to raise awareness of the tortured journey of today’s asylum-seekers.
Waskow, who identifies with the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements, said he has not witnessed such involvement across the Jewish community since he protested segregation at an amusement park in Baltimore in 1963. "I think [the recent activism] draws on, echoes, and goes beyond most American Jewish activism of the last century,” he said.
The activists say the administration’s treatment of migrants, and the conditions thousands endure in detention centers, are a painful reminder of the times when Jewish people were demonized as “the other.”
Like Waskow, Sara Atkins, 39, has marched through the city, demonstrated at the Philadelphia field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and helped immigrants navigate the court system. She is director of advocacy for Torah Trumps Hate, an Orthodox Jewish activist organization of more than 2,000 members nationwide that was founded soon after Trump’s election.
One of the signs members hoist at demonstrations quotes Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.” Another asks, “What would God say?”
The situation at the border and the tactics of ICE are "not Torahdik, not in line with Torah values,” said Atkins, of Wynnewood.
Torah Trumps Hate has helped immigrants at airports navigate immigration procedures, cosponsored protests such as one in February 2018 that advocated for Dreamers, and has mobilized members to attend more recent protests nationwide, including the July 12 Lights for Liberty march in Philadelphia, held on the eve of the Trump administration’s threatened ICE raids.
Why have Jewish groups rallied?
Waskow suggested that last year’s wave of Jewish activism came from the Trump administration’s child separation policy, and this year’s from the “public unveiling” of the dire conditions inside ICE detention centers. He said he became more forcefully involved after traveling to a Texas center last year with the American Federation of Teachers to deliver books and toys to the children — and being turned away by guards.
Atkins, a member of the Lubavicher Hasidic sect, an Orthodox Jewish movement, said she grew up involved with progressive causes but was spurred to public advocacy by Trump’s election. She’s now mounting a run for the Pennsylvania Senate as a primary challenger to Daylin Leach, motivated in part by how Torah Trumps Hate gave her a space “to use my voice.”
The rise of Jewish advocacy for immigrants, she said, is tied to “the whole concept of ‘Never again’ " repeating the atrocities of the Holocaust. “There are concentration camps, literally, in our country right now," Atkins said. "And that is a trigger for many of us.”
For others, it’s about the Jewish people’s long history of immigration, of being forced to seek refuge.
Mount Airy resident Seth Lieberman, 55, who cochairs the Refugee Immigrant Justice Initiative within the Germantown Jewish Centre synagogue, said that at the group’s first meeting last winter, members discussed what has compelled more and more Jews to take to the streets.
Many cited a viral photograph of a Honduran woman and her children fleeing tear gas. Almost everyone there, Lieberman said, “saw our own Bubbies and Zaidies in that picture.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit, 59, head rabbi at Mishkan Shalom, said that beyond participating in protests, the congregation has formed a committee to foster more advocacy on immigration. It sponsors an undocumented family and has joined various immigration coalitions such as New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
The synagogue will also dedicate Tisha B’Av to asylum-seekers, interspersing the lamentations of undocumented immigrants into the day’s liturgy.
“We do not see a separation between our spiritual lives and our political activism,” Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, a synagogue member and social justice organizer, said.
Demonstrators have used Jewish ritual objects at protests.
At the June 24 rally outside the Philadelphia ICE office, Zevit brought a shofar — an instrument made from a ram’s horn, with a deep, shrill sound. It’s usually a call for repentance, but here, it was “a call toward justice, toward taking action or organizing,” he said.
Some take into account how the clothing they wear at protests showcases their Judaism.
Atkins covers her hair, like many married Orthodox women. At protests, she wears a “snood" hairnet instead of a wig: “When Orthodox people see my snood, they are like, oh, there’s an Orthodox person there. So it’s an identifier.”
Zevit said he now wears a talit, a Jewish prayer shawl, at most actions.
“I only grew up wearing [a talit] in morning services,” he said. But he saw Christians and Muslims in religious garb at protests, and decided to start wearing one.
The point of the talit is to look at its tzitit fringes, and remember God’s commandments, Zevit said.