A Promise To Yeni

Rabbi Josh Whinston

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor gave the following sermon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish New Year. He and Michigan Support Circle’s Rosalie Lochner met while giving an interview on Michigan Radio a few months ago, at the time that immigrant families separated at the border were being hastily reunited with little resources to support them. Rosalie was working on reunifying families in Michigan. Josh had just driven a mom named Yeni, who had started out from a small village in Guatemala to get her family away from gang violence, hundreds of miles to reunite with her children. Here is his sermon, a letter — and promise — to Yeni.

Dear Yeni,

It has been over two months since I have seen you. Two months since I received a phone call from my wife, Sarah, that Gina Katz (one of the cofounders of Michigan Support Circle and member of Temple Beth Emeth) had called, asking if she could drive you from Ann Arbor to Pittsburgh, you were just days out of detention and you were desperate to see your children.

Sarah couldn’t make the drive, but I could. And immediately I began looking for another person who spoke Spanish to accompany me, preferably a woman as I thought that might make you more comfortable. When I could not find any members of my congregation who could help, I asked the only person I knew who spoke decent Spanish, Nellie Stansbury, she works in our office at my synagogue. Without thinking twice Nellie agreed to drive with us.

I am not sure exactly how Nellie felt before we picked you up, and to be honest I am not even sure how I felt, we were joking in the car as we would in the office, but as we approached that house off Pontiac Trail, things felt serious. We knocked on the door and your host opened. It was July 2nd, 6 AM.

You sat on the couch waiting for us after being shepherded from Arizona, to Ann Arbor. You knew there was still a considerable journey ahead of you to New York where your kids were being held. Even before we got in the car, I was thankful for the care the trip organizers had taken with you. They were just three women, three regular people who heard your story on the radio and decided to raise money for your $8,000 bond to get you out of detention.

These women and those working with them would come to be known as Immigrant Families Together. They wanted you to drive across the country so you would not have to encounter TSA at the airport and risk being sent back into detention even though you had all the correct papers now.

You climbed in to the back seat of my car, and I didn’t say this, but it became clear when that door shut, we weren’t just driving you from point A to B, we were on a mission.

I kept looking at you in the rearview mirror, I could see the pain in your face, I could feel the exhaustion of your experience, I could sense your determination. I was so embarrassed of what my government did to you.

We didn’t talk much at first, it was still so early in the morning and you had already been traveling for a few days. We were also cognizant of not asking too many questions. We already knew the general details of your story, even though you were claiming asylum, Yeni, you had been in detention for weeks, your children had been stolen from you and you were trying to get them back.

To a certain extent, those details are enough, they are enough for any feeling human being to know your situation was a great injustice. The immoral policies set in motion in Washington were reason enough to get involved and make sure that the voices from D.C. and ICE agents were not the only American voices you would hear. This is why, when I was given the opportunity to help, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to help. These were the general details, the details that everyone in your situation shared.

It wasn’t for an hour or two that you started talking about your personal experience. I’ve wondered for weeks now, why did you share your story with us? Did you feel obligated? I hope not.

Did you want to two more people to know firsthand, from your lips the narrative that you wanted to tell? I promise, I will never forget what you told Nellie and me. I promise I’ll never forget that you come from a village south of Guatemala City, and that two men who run the local gang control the village. I promise to never forget that in recent years, you have been too scared to leave your house unless it was absolutely necessary and now that your son is getting older you have been fearful for months that he was either going to be recruited into the gang or killed.

Staying in your village, the choice for your 11-year-old son was clear, death or a life in the gang. You told us, that even though the last few days you met some wonderful people, kind people, that you just wanted to forget this ever happened, you wanted to forget the ICE agents. I don’t know if you meant it this way, but you also implied you wanted to forget us too. You wanted to forget the people who had harmed you and the people who were helping you. I know what it feels like to just wish your life is a nightmare that maybe you’ll just wake up if you are lucky.

After you shared so much, I probably shouldn’t have asked you any questions, but I just couldn’t help myself. You see, Yeni, by the time you were sitting in my back seat, the family separation crisis had been front-page news for a few weeks. When reporters would speak with migrants, either once they were deported or released from detention, they would always ask, “Knowing what you know now, that once caught, your children would be separated from you, would you still come? If you could do it over again would you still try to come over the boarder?” and the answer was always, “yes, it would not have deterred me.”

It was a question that I assume was meant to say to our government, “Don’t you see, this policy is ineffective.” And so I wanted to know, did you hold this opinion as well? After all you had been through, would you still have come here knowing that your kids might be taken from you? Without missing a beat, you said, no. No, I would not have come.

We all sat for a while after that without speaking. I was shocked at what you said to us, it was so strikingly different from everything I was hearing and reading in the news. As I drove down I-80, I realized what you were really saying to us. Yeni, when you told Nellie and me that you would not have come, what you were also saying to us that you would prefer to take your chance with the gang, the very real possibility of death, rather than the agony of losing your children, the horror of having your babies ripped from your hands at 5 AM, the torture of not knowing where your kids were going or when you would see them again.

Yeni, I am a parent of three children as well, I can’t imagine being put in the position of making such a decision.

Yeni, now you know, the America of opportunity, the America of diversity, the America of tolerance, that is only part of America.

This year we were all reminded, family separation is also American, racism is also American, indifference, that too is American. You see, Yeni, the thing I didn’t tell you, the thing I wanted to say but knew there was no good way to really explain in the car ride, is that I wasn’t just driving you because of my political point of view, I needed to drive you to Pittsburgh because I am a Jew.

Yes, we of all people know the faces of America. As much as we love this country, as much as we have succeeded in this country. We Jews know all the faces of America. We know the face of America that turned away the St. Louis ensuring the deaths of its passengers when it returned to Europe, we know the America that would not bomb the train tracks leading to and from Auschwitz, we know the America that passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that made it nearly impossible for more Jews to enter the United States if they were from Southern or Eastern Europe. And sadly, this is the America that some want to restore, in fact our attorney general is on record praising the Immigration Act of 1924 an act whose author explicitly said its intention was to end “indiscriminate acceptance of all races.”[1]

Yeni, people can disagree about immigration without being racist, I am sure you would agree with that. And even with your unambiguous response regarding not coming to America had you known the consequences, I am in no position to say whether the policy was effective as a deterrent or not, most of us here today probably don’t know the answer to that question. However, I do know the answer to another question, “Is the end worth the means?” When the Torah, the foundational text of Judaism, repeats 36 times to be kind to the stranger, repeating it more than any other commandment in all of Torah, no, the end does not justify the means.

Yeni, we Jews are a diverse group, we differ in opinion about immigration, we differ in opinion about many policies, but ripping babies from the hands of parents whose only crime is seeking a better life, is beyond the pale of acceptable behavior, especially when it is done in our names.

Yeni, your story is exactly what the Torah has in mind when it tells us over and over again, be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land Egypt. Yeni, when our sacred text tells Jews to be kind to the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, what it is really saying is watch out for the people in your society who have no power.

Yeni, your community, the undocumented immigrant community and now the asylum seeking community are exactly these people. Your future is at the whim of the State. As you’ve come to see Yeni, ICE agents function outside the normal constraints of law enforcement, and you may not know it, but the immigration court you have been in, it is not like the rest of our courts, it is not in the Judicial branch, it is a part of the Executive branch in the Justice department, a department run by a man I have already told you about, a man who praises an act that was designed to discriminate based on race.

Yeni, at this point, I really only have one fear, I fear that I will forget my outrage. I fear that after so many months, that after so many scandals, after so many outrages newspaper articles that focus on other issues, that I will forget how important this work is. I fear that it will get shuffled to the back of my mind that this monththere are nearly 13,000 kids being held in detention, compared to 2,400 in May of 2017.

I am afraid that I won’t feel the outrage, even knowing that it is government policies that have driven these numbers up. I am afraid that I won’t feel outrage that our government is choosing to house children in tent cities rather than encouraging family members to come and claim them. I am afraid that I will succumb to the great American pastime of outrage fatigue.

Yeni, last night my community sang the KolNidre prayer. It is a prayer that absolves us from pledges we made to God last year and in the year to come. We say this prayer because in Judaism, breaking a promise, a vow, made in God’s name is a serious offense. Yeni, earlier I promised you that I would not forget your story, I am also promising you that I won’t stop working for family reunification. Just four days ago, months after the courts ordered that all children must be reunited with their parents, I helped arrange for transportation for a mother trying to get to her child in New York.

Yeni, you may not be in the headlines anymore, but the story of family separation is not over.

So this year, I reject KolNidre, I reject a prayer that absolves me when the soul of my country is at stake. This year I reject a prayer that absolves me if I fail to meet my promise. Too much has happened, too much is at stake. I reject a prayer that guarantees forgiveness for the unforgivable. I reject a prayer that will make my outrage fatigue acceptable, a prayer that secures my relationship with God but givesno mind to the insecurity you face each day. For those of us that have the means, that have the time, that have the privilege to help, this is not a moment when we can fail, when we can stumble.

I reject KolNidre this year.

I promise to continue working to right this horrendous wrong and I promise to encourage my congregation to do the same.My congregation has tried, in fact, just last year we declared ourselves a sanctuary congregation, it was an important step to take, but it remains wholly symbolic. A part of me doubts we will have the opportunity to help as a sanctuary congregation.

Yeni, it made us feel good, but I don’t know that it actually did any good.

We can do more, Yeni. We live in a state where separated kids don’t qualify for Medicare, that isn’t the case in other states, we could do more to change this.

We could make sure that we are on a list of available drivers who can transport migrant families living in Michigan to their meetings with ICE agents, or doctor’s visits, or help these families shop for groceries.

Yeni, the wonderful thing that has happened is that groups of citizens have responded. There is a group called Michigan Support Circle, it has been helping families right here in Michigan, but they need more help, they need donations of funds but also clothes. Winter is coming and migrant families need to be prepared.

These parents, like you, are unable to work, forbidden to work by our government even though you and they are legally waiting for your asylum request to be reviewed. Yeni, these families need support as they wait. We can do that, Yeni, we can be that support.

Our debt to you Yeni, and to others who have suffered like you by the hands of our government is not forgiven and is not paid in full.

We must do more, we have to do more, we will do more.

Yeni, I promise.