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Kehilla’s Deepening Sanctuary Work in Our Season of Liberation

by Rabbi Dev Noily

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם

Together, make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among you.  – Exodus 25:8

As we gather to celebrate Pesach this year Kehilla is taking the next step on our path as a Sanctuary congregation. As our Board took its vote on March 28, I felt an electric connection with our ancestors, ancient and recent. I felt them smiling on us with love.

Once on a spring night with a luminous full moon our ancestors fled the familiar oppression of Mitzrayim and rushed into an uncertain flight in search of freedom. They were pursued by armed authorities and chased across the desert. They traversed a body of water that became the boundary between slavery and freedom, between life and death. Their journey has been compared to the current migratory path of so many people seeking refuge across the Rio Grande in the U.S., fleeing intolerable violence and hardship in Central America and Mexico.

But in the story unfolding now, the armed authorities are also waiting on the freedom side of the river—snatching people who’ve just crossed over and trapping people who have lived here for decades, separating families, locking people up in cages with no due process, no way to communicate, no word from loved ones outside.

As we tell our story of liberation again this year, to each other and to the children coming up with us, conditions are worsening by the day for the immigrants among us. We watch with horror as ICE steps up its raids, as the courts allow for indefinite detentions, as the number of Trump appointees in the judicial system grows, as the conditions for people in detention deteriorate, and now as the Census Bureau seeks to intimidate immigrants into opting out of being counted. This criminalization of immigrants—targeting people of color from Central America, the Caribbean and Africa—is an expression and extension of the privileging and normalizing of whiteness in the United States.

For many of us, the incremental creeping of authoritarian tactics, laws, and judicial rulings bears a terrifying resemblance to the incremental, creeping criminalization of Jews under Nazi authority. We carry in our hearts the memory of those whose lives were saved because someone took a risk to help them, and the memory of those whose lives were lost because not enough people were willing to take those risks.

For over two years now, a growing number of people at Kehilla have been working with undocumented immigrants and refugees in our community. They serve on accompaniment teams to help new immigrants navigate our complex systems, they organize the Let Our People Go monthly protests at the West County Detention Facility, they offer temporary housing to immigrants and refugees in their homes, they show up at deportation hearings and bond hearings, they raise money to help immigrant families with expenses, they are part of rapid response teams who show up when ICE is conducting raids, and they teach other people how to do what they do. Well over 100 Kehilla members, including many children and youth, are engaged in one or more of these actions.

Kehilla first declared itself a Sanctuary congregation in the 1980s. In November 2016, the Board passed a resolution to reaffirm our commitment to being a Sanctuary congregation. That resolution included a commitment to explore offering physical sanctuary to people by temporarily housing them in our building. Since then, the Sanctuary Subcommittee of Kehilla’s Immigration Committee has been working to untangle the many complex issues involved in offering our hospitality to immigrants.

In July 2017, Kehilla’s board began a serious consideration of offering physical sanctuary. After nine months of investigation, research and deliberation, and with the full support of Kehilla’s Spiritual Leaders and Executive Director, on March 28 the Kehilla Board of Trustees voted its approval for offering physical sanctuary in our building. The Board’s vote clears the way for a community process to move forward. That process will include community conversations and feedback (both with the Kehilla School community and the general Kehilla community), development of guidelines and policies for hosting people, and preparation of the physical space. Please see below for details on our first community conversations coming in May.

This is a big and important step for us. It allows us to honor our ancestors and to live into our values in new and deep ways. It allows us to leverage our privilege in owning a building, being a majority white community in Piedmont, being a religious institution, and having many members with resources to share. It allows us to explore with our children the power of community, solidarity with people facing injustice, and the interconnectedness of all humanity. It allows us to experience our fears of risk and loss and of people we don’t know, and to grow our edges around hospitality, generosity and spiritual audacity. It allows us to learn from people who are enduring hardships and challenges that most of us have never had to face. It allows us to strengthen our connections to the growing network of resistance to oppression and authoritarianism.

May this season bring sparks of liberation to us all, as we build our Sanctuary together.

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