Jews board the bus in drive to support immigrants

“Hop on the bus, Gus” worked well enough as one of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave your Lover.”

Now a group of young Bay Area Jews figure that hopping on the bus can help promote immigrants’ rights as well.

When Abigail Levine heard about a Freedom Riders-inspired bus-riding campaign culminating in a New York rally for immigrants’ rights, she knew she had to get involved. So the 24-year-old Oakland union organizer founded her own association in May to get some Jewish riders on those buses.

“We all came here from somewhere, and it wasn’t that long ago. Also, in the Torah we are commanded over 30 times to remember that we were strangers in Egypt,” explained Levine, the founder and co-director of Jews for Equal Rights for Immigrant Communities or JERICO.

“We have a culture of remembering our past. We should remember our immigrant history.”

On Tuesday buses head east from 11 cities, and the Oakland-based JERICO will have nine riders aboard, including three on the San Francisco bus. Daily updates will be posted on the organization’s upcoming Web site,

“For me, a lot of it is just a belief I have in equality. And a lot of people probably didn’t want my grandparents to come here,” said Jaime Rappaport, JERICO’s co-director, on her inspiration to join the ride. Along with Levine and San Franciscan Dan Cardozo, Rapaport represents the Bay Area contingent.

“Our organization has a dual purpose: Wield the support of the Jewish community for immigrants’ rights and foster a Jewish identity based on social justice.”

Levine and Rapaport, 22, have both worked for unions, and Rappaport spent time at an interfaith community justice labor organization in Los Angeles. The Oakland residents have both seen firsthand the abuse of recent immigrants by employers.

“One day after a union election, they’ll call immigration and they’ll come in and do raids,” said Levine of her experiences as an organizer for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

Added Rapaport, “Low-wage workers are exploited to begin with, and immigrant status adds another level to that. In effect, it brings down the standards for everyone. If people feel they can pay immigrants less and not provide health care or give paid sick leave or vacation time, it will become the standard for low-wage jobs in America.”

Even though JERICO is only 5 months old, a number of prominent Jewish supporters have already jumped on board. Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Washington, D.C.-based Religious Action Center has offered his blessing, as has Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Closer to home, Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon’s Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar and Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco’s Conservative Beth Sholom have also lent support.

Lew’s congregation will host a Sunday rally in honor of the riders. Speakers will include S.F. attorney and former Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver, lawyer and Jewish activist Robert Rubin, Lew and the riders themselves.

While the bus ride pays homage to the Freedom Rides, when civil rights activists boarded buses in the 1960s to protest segregation in the South, JERICO riders admit a freedom flight to the East Coast would be quicker. But, in this case, getting there is half the goal.

Riders will be stopping along the way and politicking, alerting Americans to the plight of immigrants and registering voters. JERICO riders will also connect with Jewish communities along the way, including a celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

Rapaport notes that JERICO isn’t pushing any specific legislation — there’s no way this Congress would pass anything close to their agenda — but is rather hoping to take the first baby steps toward establishing a movement.

“For me, this ride is about taking my ideals and putting them into action for the first time,” said Cardozo, a U.C. Berkeley graduate.

“It will show immigrants that Jews haven’t forgotten where we come from and understand the struggles they go through. It will show them there are people who are willing to fight to help them enjoy the rights we do.”

A rally in support of JERICO will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Beth Sholom, 1301 Clement St., S.F. Information:

(510) 893-3187.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.