By GWEN OREL
On the third night of Hanukkah, Thursday, Dec. 14, an interfaith celebration will be held at Bnai Keshet and will also mark the formation of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance. Bnai Keshet, First Congregational Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair put together the alliance with the help of Faith in New Jersey, a group that works on social and economic justice issues at the local, state and federal level. The celebration will be held at Bnai Keshet, 99 South Fullerton Ave., at 7:30 p.m.
The word “Hanukkah” means dedication, and the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple sanctuary after the Maccabean uprising against Greek colonization. “We will dedicate ourselves to the project,” Bnai Keshet’s Rabbi Ariann Weitzman said of Thursday’s gathering, which will be the first interfaith Hanukkah celebration at the synagogue.
“Hanukkah is a holiday that at its very core is about bringing light into moments of darkness,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, who spearheaded the project.
Members of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance will accompany immigrants to their check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, and form rapid-response teams to help document arrests.
The third floor of Red Gables, a 19th-century building that was Bnai Keshet’s home until a new synagogue was built in 2000, has room to house a family in what was the custodian’s residence.
Laypeople will do some of the work to ready the space. “It’s an incredible community building effort,” Weitzman said.
UUCM is devoting 20 percent of its Sunday collection plate in December to the project. The UUCM newsletter states the doing so is “consistent with our Principles and Covenant.” The first principle, the Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael said, is “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.”
The Bnai Keshet space can afford a family some privacy, said the Rev. Ann Ralosky, of First
Ralosky’s congregation, like UUCM, is taking up a collection for a reserve fund for immigrants. While it can be anticipated that a family would need meals, and someone to do laundry, there might also be a need for a quick legal response, she said.
First Congregational Church is often thought of as the LGBTQ church, Ralosky said, because it holds many LGBTQ events, and because of the huge rainbow sign on its lawn.
But really, the congregation is about being “open and affirming of others,” she said. People who are marginalized within their community, due to ethnicity, age or gender, are welcome at FCC.
“We are radically inclusive,” Ralosky said.
“Our values are prompting us to bear witness to what’s happening.
“There’s still a veneer of decency. They do not want the bad optics of knocking on the door, and dragging someone out of a church.” Housing an undocumented immigrant can buy time, she said.
There are undocumented people living in Montclair, as well as in Newark, Irvington and Union. “We have a team of about 30, ready to go,” she said.
FAITH AND HISTORY
Tepperman said the effort was “important to me personally because I come from a family that needed a place that would be safe to live.
“I’m grateful that America was that place. It’s important to me personally because I know that for many generations, Jews have lived in countries where they did not have full legal rights as citizens.”
His grandfather and great aunt came to the United States from Eastern Europe as teenagers, he said, and had to “sneak out of the country because they couldn’t afford any of the fees.” Weitzman said that when many Jews came to this country, the laws were different. They didn’t have to deal with the same stringencies to immigrate
Protecting the stranger is also important theologically, Tepperman said: “We are
commanded once to love our neighbors, in the Torah, twice to love God, and the commandment to love the stranger is backed up over 36 times. The Torah is obsessed with making sure that we protect the stranger.”
In a sermon, he quoted the passage in Deuteronomy that says God upholds the fatherless and the widow, “and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Sammler-Michael said, “We are bound together in society in such a way that equality is not manifest unless we respect one another’s dignity.
“We have laws in this nation that we need to uphold, but we also have laws in this nation
that are more fair for some than they are for others. All of our members have a deep inclination to serve immigrants. How is different from individual to individual.”
Ralosky said she saw what was going on “with Christian lenses.”
“Christ is in the least of these,” she said. “Our undocumented brothers and sisters are among our most vulnerable. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s the stranger in a strange land.”
Christ as a baby was a political refugee, she said: “His family fled to Egypt for their lives. They stayed for two years.” That fact gets brushed under the hay,” she said.
Ultimately, Tepperman said, “what we would really like to see is a more inclusive and navigable immigration policy from our country. As long as that’s not there, we feel morally compelled to offer opportunities for individuals being potentially deported to resist that deportation and seek safe sanctuary with us as they try to come to a resolution.” It’s a political act, he said, but not a partisan one.
Sammler-Michael said, “Right now our country is engaged in a culture war of sorts, where we are asking ourselves, ‘What does it mean to be an American?’” Her congregation is dedicated to developing a larger vision of what that should be.
“People in need are bearing Christ within them,” Ralosky said.
“It’s not theologically challenging at all. It’s an act of holy resistance.”