Rabbi Amy Eilberg
You are Not Alone
Updated: Jun 29, 2018
It was late on Friday afternoon, and I was on my way to a Catholic church, where I would soon lead Shabbat candle-lighting for a large multi-faith gathering. To my left was the U.S.-Mexico border. I saw tall military structures, as if in a war zone.
I was preparing to bring in Shabbat, a day of stepping back from the world of work and appreciating God’s creation just as it is. It struck me that God did not create militarized borders. God did not create national borders at all. These are human creations, which do no harm, except when they come to represent and facilitate racism and xenophobia. God’s creation of all races and creeds as one human family was being grievously violated on this border.
I was spending Shabbat at the border with PICO California, the multi-faith state-wide umbrella for Faith in Action Bay Area, where I work. I had been hungry for an opportunity to go to the border to physically express my outrage at the Trump Administration’s unconscionable policy of family separation and criminalization of immigrants. As soon as I saw the announcement of this trip, I knew that I would go.
The group was gathering on a Friday evening (June 22nd) and the action, a demonstration outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center south of San Diego, would take place on Saturday (June 23rd). It had taken some planning to figure out how to participate in the demonstration without violating Shabbat. But I knew that I needed to go, to show up, to physically demonstrate my anguish over these unbearable policies.
On Friday night, I stood on the pulpit of the church that hosted us and led the multi-faith group in Shabbat candle-lighting. A surprising number of people (not only Jews) sang with me and even joined me for Shalom Aleichem, after I invited them to look around at one another and see one another as angels, gathered this weekend to do holy work.
On Shabbat morning, after a prayer service filled with stirring music and chants (including Rabbi David Cooper teaching “Ozi v’zimrat Yah,” “God is my strength and my song”), we set out for the detention center. One thousand people from all over California converged at the meeting place. It was a cross-section of Californians, including people of different races, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. A beautiful multi-faceted swath of humanity, standing as one. Together we marched, chanting all the way, including the words, “This little light of mine;” “Let our children go; Let our families go; Let our people go;” and “I believe that we will win; I know that we will win.”
At one point we heard voices from inside the detention center. Spanish-speaking marchers heard the words, “We can hear you. Can you help us find our children?” As one, we responded with words now added to my very small Spanish vocabulary, “Estamos aqui” (We are here) and “No estas solo” (You are not alone).
After a time, fifty members of the group stepped forward, led by clergy in clerical garb (not including me). Trained in non-violent civil disobedience, they stepped into the gated area around the detention center, arm in arm, singing songs of prayer. They paused and hung small plastic shoes on the gate, symbolizing the smallest immigrant children suffering from these policies. With calm dignity, they proceeded to the front door of the detention center.
Only then did a sheriff approach them, clear that they were prepared to be arrested. Speaking respectfully, he explained that he could not process such a large group on this location. If the entire group presented themselves for arrest, they would be transferred downtown and could not be “processed” until Monday (two days later). The group huddled and suggested that those who needed to be home before Monday should feel free to leave. After much conversation, the group decided that the bail money that would be needed to have the rest of them released from jail would be money better used to help immigrant detainees. Satisfied that they had made their statement (with significant press coverage), they decided to step back and go home.
Outside, the rest of us were heading back toward the parking area. A line of cars made its way through the crowd, filled with family members of detainees, at the end of visiting hours. Cars began to honk, as people inside, grinning broadly, gave us thumbs-up signs and fists raised in solidarity. One young woman, looking out the back seat window of her family’s car, wept openly, grateful for our presence. We had made a difference for her, at least.
Back home now, I know that the problems are not solved. Would that we had that power. But a large group of people had chanted and prayed and called out to the detainees that we were with them, that they were not alone. That was what we could do – until the next opportunity to do the holy work of standing in solidarity with our nation’s innocent strangers.