Expanding Our Social Justice Work Through Sanctuary
We are writing to update the community on a journey led by our Immigration Committee’s Sanctuary Task Force over the last two years. As you may remember, the theme of Kehilla’s year 5777 High Holy Days (2016) focused on support for immigrants and refugees. Following the November 2016 election, this issue became even more pressing. In response, the Immigration Committee, spiritual leaders, executive director and Kehilla Board of Trustees began to collaboratively research and learn about the potential for Kehilla to offer physical sanctuary to immigrants facing the threat of deportation.
Many of these immigrants are people of color who live and work in our community and are being separated from their families and livelihoods. Kehilla leaders considered Jewish history and values, potential issues and our congregation’s mission, as they explored the potential to take immigrants into sanctuary as part of our spiritual practice.
We would like to share that process with you and to invite your questions and feedback through a process of community engagement with the following elements:
April, May and June– Articles on sanctuary in Kol Kehilla
May– Information on sanctuary on Kehilla’s website
May 10th – Information sessions for Kehilla School parents
May 12th – Shabbat service for all interested members of our community, followed by an afternoon of education, listening circles and Q&A
May 16th – Opportunity to ask questions or provide feedback to members of the Sanctuary Task Force and other Kehilla leaders at our Annual Community Meeting
Late May – Online member survey on sanctuary with option to submit questions
Ongoing – Individual and small group conversations with members of the Sanctuary Task Force and other Kehilla leaders
In the 1980s Kehilla Community Synagogue began actively working on immigration issues and declared itself a sanctuary congregation.
In the summer of 2015, in collaboration with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, the first Kehilla accompaniment teams were paired with recently arrived families and individuals from Central America to welcome and accompany them through the process of settling into their lives in the East Bay. Most of these immigrants came seeking asylum due to extreme violence in their home countries. Kehilla teams also formed to support refugees from all over the world sponsored by Jewish Family and Community Service-East Bay, many of them LGBTI individuals and couples fleeing persecution.
In November 2016, the Kehilla Board of Trustees reaffirmed our congregation’s longstanding commitment to being a sanctuary congregation and voted to explore using our space for physical sanctuary. Between November 2016 and July 2017, members of Kehilla’s Immigration Committee researched the feasibility of creating a sanctuary space within the synagogue building and, in July 2017, presented a proposal to the Kehilla Board of Trustees. The board approved the creation of a Sanctuary Task Force composed of Immigration Committee and board members, and directed the Sanctuary Task Force to further research potential impacts on the congregation.
In the subsequent months, the Sanctuary Task Force took the following steps to research and resolve potential issues:
● Discussed reasons to provide physical sanctuary at Kehilla, despite challenges. Reasons included the following:
○ The moral imperative to care for the stranger, which is rooted in our religious tradition and is part of our mission.
○ The history of our own people and those whose lives were saved by others who took us in.
○ The clear commitment to helping immigrants demonstrated by the involvement in this work by more than 100 members of our community.
○ The opportunity for us to provide leadership by taking public action that could educate the community and change hearts and minds towards a more just immigration policy in our country.
● Consulted with specialized lawyers regarding insurance coverage, federal legal liability and city legal liability.
● Engaged with other congregations in and outside of the Bay Area that offer physical sanctuary to learn about their processes and experiences.
● Held discussions with Kehilla’s executive director and staff regarding the possible impacts of having a guest in the building.
● Met with Rabbi Gray, Kehilla School Director, regarding the possible impact on Kehilla School and plans to engage the school community in our immigrant justice activities.
● Updated and discussed findings with the Kehilla Board.
Since 2015 nearly 100 Kehilla members have been involved in supporting immigrants through accompaniment teams or providing housing. Additionally, Kehilla members have organized monthly Let Our People Go protests at the ICE detention center at the Richmond jail, with recent protests drawing more more than 200 people. Through these protests, Kehilla members have shed light on conditions inside the facility, met families of detainees, connected them with vital resources and accompanied them to court hearings. Immigrant justice work clearly resonates with our Kehilla community and is deeply linked to our Jewish values.
At the February 2018 meeting of the Kehillla Board of Trustees, Rabbi Dev Noily voiced their support for providing physical sanctuary and read our Spiritual Leaders’ Statement of Support. Additionally, Michael Saxe-Taller, Kehilla Executive Director, shared his support and feedback from the staff.
Findings of the Sanctuary Task Force’s research included the following:
● Kehilla’s current insurance coverage is adequate to protect the congregation from liability.
● Based on the few instances in which legal action has been taken against a religious institution providing sanctuary, such an action would most likely target our spiritual leaders and possibly our executive director. Both parties are prepared and willing to assume this risk.
● If any legal action were to be taken, pro bono representation would likely be available.
● Most costs of preparing the physical space could be covered via donations.
● It is possible that neighbors and/or the City of Piedmont might object to Kehilla providing sanctuary and/or temporary shelter. Based on conversations with our attorneys, advisors familiar with the City of Piedmont, and other religious institutions providing sanctuary, it is unlikely that any drastic action would be taken. At any point in this process we have a choice as to whether to fight our case or to stop what we are doing.
● Concerns for the safety of our guests, staff and community members can be addressed by carefully developing policies and protocols and by training staff, volunteers and members. We will form a Guest Advisory Committee to write and implement these procedures. This committee will review and utilize materials used by other congregations and suggestions made by our attorneys. The Guest Advisory Committee will also vet potential guests, in consultation with the lawyers assisting them with their immigration cases.
At its March 2018 meeting, the Board of Trustees passed a motion in support of providing physical sanctuary.
There is still work to be done before we can welcome someone into our home! This includes preparation of the physical space, development of policies and protocols for housing guests in the building, and a plan for coordinating volunteers to help when we have guests. Work on these items is expected to be completed in the summer or early fall of 2018.
Please join us in our process of community engagement to learn more, express your support, share any concerns and ask questions. We are proud and excited to join other congregations that have taken the step to protect those amongst us who face deportation and need a safe space while they fight to remain in the United States.
Julie Litwin, Catherine Lyons, Rabbi Dev Noily, Penny Rosenwasser, Richard Speiglman, Tova Vance
Sanctuary Task Force Members
Karen Cohn, Barbara Petterson
Board of Trustees Co-Chairs