Debbie Coutant stands in a converted shower at Congregation Shir Hadash, which is readying to house an immigrant family under threat of deportation. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Debbie Coutant stands in a converted shower at Congregation Shir Hadash, which is readying to house an immigrant family under threat of deportation. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Los Gatos shul ready to become sanctuary synagogue

A closet transformed into a shower. A futon ready to be unfolded in the synagogue’s library. A list of instructions prepared to guide a guest on what to avoid cooking in the temple’s kosher-style kitchen.

Congregation Shir Hadash, a Reform synagogue in Los Gatos, is all ready to serve as a place of sanctuary for a person, or family, facing deportation. Now all the congregation has to do is wait for someone whom immigration attorneys have identified as needing such protection.

When that happens, immigration experts say, Shir Hadash will become the first synagogue in California to provide sanctuary to a person facing deportation by federal officials.

“The Jewish people have a unique history of dealing with persecution. This is like ingrained in our DNA,” said Debbie Coutant, spokesperson for the congregation’s sanctuary project. “It’s persecution and it’s not fair what’s happened to people. We can’t just sit idly by and see this happening to people, we have to do something.”

Coutant said members of the 650-family congregation’s social justice committee started discussing turning Shir Hadash into a sanctuary soon after the election of President Trump in 2016. Though members of the synagogue already were helping refugees, some congregants expressed doubts about taking on federal immigration authorities by offering sanctuary.

“There has been strong support and there have been some concerns,” Coutant said in an interview at the synagogue. “Some people still feel like we shouldn’t be doing this because it’s illegal; they’re not comfortable with civil disobedience.”

The sanctuary movement has received strong support from the Union of Reform Judaism, of which Shir Hadash is a member. The movement’s Religious Action Center last year launched the Urgency of Now Initiative, which includes an Immigrant Justice Campaign that promotes the offer of sanctuary.

“In the Torah we are called 36 different ways to love the stranger, the orphan and the widow. The American Jewish community, and the Reform movement, know what it means to be immigrants, and we are committed to building a country that is welcoming to all people,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the RAC.

“Synagogues that have chosen to protect immigrants from deportation via legal assistance, advocating for just immigration reform, the offer of physical sanctuary, or in other ways, are taking courageous steps to live out our eternal values in a way that is crucial at this moment in history.”

Though other synagogues in California — including B’nai Israel in Sacramento and Rodef Sholom in San Rafael — have become Immigrant Justice Congregations, officials at the RAC and at HIAS, a U.S. nonprofit that offers assistance to refugees, said they did not know of any congregation in the state that has yet provided sanctuary.

In Denver, Temple Micah has partnered with the Park Hill United Methodist Church to provide sanctuary for Araceli Velasquez — who fled from El Salvador to the U.S. in 2010 — and her husband and their three children since Aug. 15. Velasquez lost an asylum case and faces deportation.

Shir Hadash congregants already are hosting two asylum-seeking refugees at their homes, though neither faces deportation. One is a single mother from Guatemala, the other a woman from Ethiopia.

Now that Shir Hadash is physically set up to provide sanctuary, Coutant said the congregation will wait for immigration attorneys to identify a candidate who needs immediate help because of the threat of deportation. The synagogue is prepared to host an individual or a family of up to three members, and congregants know the process of seeking asylum can often take months or years. Congregants will donate food, clothing and other needs to help those in sanctuary.

“We let our immigration partners know we were ready about a week ago, but it could happen today, tomorrow or a month or two from now,” said Coutant, a past president of Shir Hadash. “I haven’t heard of any discussion about who the person would be or what their ethnicity would be.”

Since the synagogue’s library will be the main sanctuary space, students and teachers who want to use the library will have to knock on the door if they want access. The person or family will be alone in the building at night, with access to the kitchen and other spaces.

Coutant said she doesn’t expect Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to show up at Shir Hadash, though congregants have discussed how to respond if that occurs.

A HIAS guide for sanctuary synagogues makes it clear that houses of worship have no legal protection from being raided or prosecuted, though it points out ICE officials rarely enter such places to apprehend people.

“There is a history and precedent of houses of worship providing shelter to undocumented immigrants and refugees fearing deportation. ICE lists churches and synagogues as ‘sensitive locations,’ and have generally avoided enforcement actions at houses of worship,” the RAC’s Pesner said. “But that doesn’t mean that they won’t try to make an arrest in the future.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.