Migrants who were sent to Sacramento by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were hosted by members of Congregation B'nai Israel, for whom the migrants prepared a Shabbat dinner on June 16, 2023. (Photo/Eve Panush)
Migrants who were sent to Sacramento by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were hosted by members of Congregation B'nai Israel, for whom the migrants prepared a Shabbat dinner on June 16, 2023. (Photo/Eve Panush)

DeSantis ‘dumped’ some migrants in Sacramento. A synagogue stepped up to host them.

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Thirty-six migrants from Central and South America arrived in Sacramento in early June, flown there from Texas on two chartered flights arranged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In response, Congregation B’nai Israel of Sacramento stepped up to help the migrants with food, basic supplies and temporary housing.

The first group of 16 was essentially “dumped on the doorstep of a local church without any advance warning” on June 2, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. The 20 migrants in the second group arrived three days later and were met at the airport by city leaders who were told of their arrival ahead of time.

The incident, like a similar stunt in September when DeSantis flew 48 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, is part of the Republican presidential candidate’s ongoing campaign against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, which DeSantis calls “open borders.” DeSantis reiterated at a news conference in the fall that Democratic-leaning areas — “blue states” such as Massachusetts and California —  “should have to bear the brunt of the open borders.”

“So that’s what we’re doing” by flying migrants to those states, he said at the time.

Like in Martha’s Vineyard, Sacramento residents quickly welcomed the tired arrivals. The interfaith group Sacramento ACT, short for Area Congregations Together, immediately took responsibility for the migrants and reached out to its members for help.

B’nai Israel, a Reform congregation that  declared itself a sanctuary synagogue in 2017, has a history of helping migrants and refugees.

“I got the call from SacACT” at 2 p.m. on June 2, a Friday, said Rabbi Mona Alfi, B’nai Israel’s spiritual leader. “They are an advocacy group. They don’t provide direct services. They knew we could respond quickly.”

Rabbi Mona Alfi and Cantor Julie Steinberg sayin the hamotzi blessing at the dinner. (Photo/Courtesy B'nai Israel)
Rabbi Mona Alfi and Cantor Julie Steinberg saying the motzi blessing at the dinner. (Photo/Courtesy B’nai Israel)

The arrivals, mostly single men and all in their 20s and 30s, “had nothing,” Alfi said, not even a change of clothes. None spoke English, so Alfi communicated with them through Google Translate until Spanish speakers were located.

“We ensured they were housed, had food, and their basic needs were met,” she said. “The congregation really stepped up cooking meals and giving money. We had so many offers from people looking to translate, to help, to do what they could.”

Food, beds, toiletries, everything had to be found — quickly. Most of the migrants had been traveling for half a year or more, walking to the U.S. border. Some had friends or family members who died on the way. One young man was handed a cellphone so he could tell his mother he was safe. He hadn’t spoken to her in more than a year.

“Some of them told me this was the first time they felt safe or had food in their bellies,” Alfi said.

B’nai Israel congregants, community and church members continued to help as the days passed, donating clothes and shoes, giving free haircuts and offering services such as transportation and medical care. SacACT also started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the migrants.

To thank the community, the migrants cooked a festive Shabbat dinner on June 16 for 200 people, both congregants and the general public, that doubled as a fundraiser for SacACT.

Congregant Sharon Rogoff said the Women of B’nai Israel sisterhood helped organize the dinner. The migrants organized themselves into teams: a prep team, a serving team and a clean-up team. The sisterhood paid for the groceries.

“We started planning on Sunday, thought maybe we’d have dinner for our congregation, 30 to 50 people,” Rogoff said. “Then it mushroomed. By Wednesday, we had 200 responses” to the online invitation.

It was important, both to the migrants and the sisterhood, that the event be public and celebratory, to counter the prevalent image of migrants as desperate or needy people with nothing to offer. In fact, she said, the people in this group are “healthy and smart, and so grateful for what we were giving them.”

“We wanted to do something public and positive, to show the larger community who these people are,” Rogoff said.

The Shabbat meal was wonderful, Rogoff and Alfi said, and featured pabellon criollo, a Venezuelan dish of rice, shredded beef and stewed black beans. Tickets cost $15 and the event raised more than $4,500, which went to SacACT.

The migrants eventually were moved into hotels, according to a Women of Reform Judaism blog, and have moved on to the next stage in their journey. Four were reunited with family or friends in the area. All have court dates, in various cities, to pursue their cases.

The two women said they hope that the congregation’s work inspires others.

“I would like every community that receives migrants to do this,” Rogoff said. “That would show those politicians a thing or two.”

Documents carried by the migrants showed that the flights were arranged through the Florida Division of Emergency Management and that they were part of a program to relocate migrants, mostly living temporarily in Texas, to other states. Critics say that DeSantis’ tactics are turning migrants into political pawns.

With the presidential election gearing up, Alfi predicted that there will be “more of these antics” from DeSantis and other Republicans.

“This was an incredible interfaith effort,” she said. “We all have the same values regarding helping the strangers in our midst. It was beautiful to see it put into action.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].