As we engage in our time of collective Jewish reflection and take stock of the past year, one issue of social justice jumps ahead of other strong competitors: For most Jewish Americans, 5768 was the year immigration came of age.
The luxury of musing about our grandparents and great-grandparents who arrived in this country with nothing but their hopes and a prayer is a thing of the hazy past. We have long since established ourselves as fully integrated, high-achieving contributors to American society. It is time for us, a community of successful immigrants, to focus our energies on the gritty realities of 21st century immigration.
One of this year's blessings in disguise was the federal immigration raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Though it is deplorable that our federal government — absent compassionate immigration laws — chooses to regulate immigration through a policy of punitive enforcement, the wake-up call that this raid presented for our community, especially, has moved immigration and immigrants out of the shadows into the stark light of day.
For the first time, Jewish Americans realized that, in order to be true to the intent of our traditions, kashrut must not only incorporate compassionate behavior toward the animals we kill, but towards those who work in our slaughterhouses.
The newspaper descriptions and personal accounts of the raid are emblazoned on our consciences: small children separated from their jailed parents; mothers with tracking devices strapped to their ankles; workers with no facility in English and no detailed knowledge of U.S. immigration law undergoing harsh interrogations; underage workers forced to slave long hours for subsistence wages.
For many of us, it will be difficult to ever enjoy meat again without wondering about the labor conditions of the workers who brought it to our tables.
During the great waves of 19th-century European immigration, advocates from the established American Jewish community helped our newly arrived relatives. Today, it is our moral, ethical and spiritual responsibility to do no less for the newly arrived of all faiths and backgrounds, who, likewise, need strong advocates to protect their rights and ensure safe and humane working conditions.
And there is much to do. Last year's collapse of comprehensive immigration reform has left us with a broken system. To counter the legal vacuum, local communities across the land are passing ad hoc ordinances aimed at taking the problem of immigration into their own hands. As a community, we need to advocate with members of Congress to pass fair and humane legislation so that otherwise law-abiding citizens, working to sustain themselves and their families, are not regularly threatened with deportation and criminal prosecution because they are undocumented.
Postville offered another valuable lesson: Its tiny faith community, not rich in resources to begin with, stepped forward to provide food, shelter and babysitting services for the nearly 400 arrested in the raids. In areas around the country with a high concentration of immigrants, congregations, and social service and legal aid agencies are desperate for volunteers to help workers operate within the framework of the law, to offer food and clothing to those in need, to tutor English, to care for children while their parents work, and to mentor entire families.
In recent years, synagogues have not only appealed to our pocketbooks during the High Holidays but to our consciences. Many of us now have the opportunity to make ethical commitments for the new year — to define and name the social action we pledge to repair our world. Thanks to the raid at Agriprocessors, there is a clear call to action to welcome the stranger and make certain that his world more closely resembles our world.
This New Year of 5769 should be the one that signals the end to raids as a solution to immigration problems, and a beginning for a national Jewish immigration movement. Let us rededicate ourselves to the vulnerable immigrants among us and turn our energies to positive action on their behalf. Let us fill an urgent need by building a sukkat ger — a sheltering presence to protect and nurture these newest of Americans. In doing so, we will bring renewed honor to our relations with our fellow man, our country and our faith.
Gideon Aronoff is the President & CEO of HIAS, the international migration agency of the Jewish people.