Members and supporters of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, Aug. 22, 2017 (Photo/Alix Wall)
Members and supporters of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, Aug. 22, 2017 (Photo/Alix Wall)

Prayers at ICE detention center call for release of immigrants

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The blast of the shofar — multiple shofars, actually — were heard outside the West County Detention Facility this morning as about 70 people gathered for Jewish morning prayer services on the grass outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Richmond. The event marked the beginning of the month of Elul, the period leading up to the High Holy Days that traditionally is focused on introspection.

The group consisted mostly of rabbis and cantors affiliated with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, with the Bay Area and Southern California well-represented. Some also came from other states. They were joined by members of Bend the Arc Bay Area: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

“We are using that framing to ask ICE and the federal government to repent their inhumane stance toward undocumented immigrants,” T’ruah said in a statement.

According to T’ruah’s New York-based executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs, it was the first time the group had ever held services outside a detention center. It certainly made for a striking image, with people donning their multicolored prayer shawls and tefillin against a backdrop of an institutional building and barbed wire .

Though they didn’t expect any kind of response from ICE, this was part of “our ongoing efforts to support those people inside,” said Jacobs.

“As rabbis and cantors we want to bring our prayers and Torah to free those people facing deportation and say to the Trump administration that we are paying attention, that we want these people who are detained to be reunited with their families,” Jacobs told J.

And bring the Torah they did. During the service, when calling people to the Torah for the first aliyah, Rabbi Emeritus Sheldon Lewis of Kol Emeth in Palo Alto invited up anyone who was doing some kind of sanctuary work.

While saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, founding rabbi of Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado, asked for the names of civil rights heroes who most inspired those assembled. Names called out included Harvey Milk, President Barack Obama, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Nelson Mandela and Heather Heyer, the young woman killed two weeks ago protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Before the shofar blowing, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, the former associate rabbi at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel, called attention to the plight of Hugo Mejia, an undocumented immigrant and longtime San Rafael resident who was picked up by ICE on May 3 while reporting to work in Fairfield. (Many of the signs being held said “Free Hugo.”) Currently held at the Richmond facility, Mejia is facing deportation without a trial.

Hugo Mejia smiling with a woman
Hugo Mejia (right)

“Today we bring attention to Hugo Mejia and the many others who are detained for doing what our ancestors did, coming to this country to improve their chances at survival and supporting their families,” said Saxe-Taller. “Torah teaches that we are to have one law for ourselves and for those who reside among us. In other words, immigrants deserve the same due process as everyone else. The conflation of criminal and immigration law enforcement is an insidious wrong that we oppose and must reverse.”

Saxe-Taller also spoke in support of Senate Bill 54, known as the California Values Act, which would provide the legal basis for California to be a sanctuary state.

If passed, it would require ICE agents to obtain warrants before taking custody of immigrants, and would “limit collaboration of state police with the federal agency that is now mandated to implement the agenda of racism, scapegoating and xenophobia that is coming from the White House,” Saxe-Taller continued. “We need the protections of the California Values Act to protect immigrants from the terror that makes them afraid to send their children to school or to report domestic violence.”

Ben Ross (left) and Levi Steinman hold signs during prayer vigil at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Ben Ross (left) and Levi Steinman of Berkeley hold signs during prayer vigil at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Rabbi Michael Lezak, now the staff rabbi at the Glide Social Justice Center in San Francisco, knows Mejia personally from his time at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. (Rodef Sholom has been actively working to free Mejia, who was a volunteer at the synagogue).

He told those assembled that the husband and father of three is “a towering mensch,” and later told J. that he got to know Mejia through a partnership between Rodef Sholom and Venetia Valley across the street, a school that one of Mejia’s children attends.

When the synagogue invited 10 families from the school to sit in its sukkah and share stories of their family’s immigration, Mejia’s family was one of those to participate.

“Hugo had volunteered at Rodef Sholom serving meals in our mitzvah kitchen to the homeless,” Lezak told J., “and he could be deported without a trial. We are trying to push for him to have a trial and to help ICE focus on the real threats to our country, not Hugo, who was one of the greatest assets we had in Marin County. He is a light-filled soul that was stolen from us.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."