El Paso border crossing to Mexico
El Paso border crossing to Mexico

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth leads the group.

Louis Finkelman

JN Contributing Writer

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor will lead a group of congregants to join others from around the country on Thursday to protest the treatment of asylum seekers at the Texas border with Mexico.

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor Temple Beth Emeth

They will meet on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. On this bridge, according to the ACLU and a group called Hope Border Institute, asylum seekers have allegedly been harassed by officers — told they cannot claim asylum, for instance. These organizations say having people as witnesses limits the harassment.

The group will also protest outside the detention facility for children on federal land at Tornillo, Texas. The group will then serve a dinner they’ve purchased to residents of an overflow shelter at Annunciation House in El Paso.

About a month ago, a Beth Emeth congregant asked the rabbi what she could do about the way the U.S. government is treating immigrant families — separating children from parents, keeping children against their will in detention facilities that appear to serve as prisons, such as the one in Tornillo. She could write checks to the appropriate organizations, but what else could she do?

Whinston said he has the same problem. “Let’s do something,” he told her.

He got in touch with a colleague, Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp in Cincinnati, someone he knew from rabbinical school. She had contacts with Faith in Action, a national community organizing group. They put together a plan of action.

Most of the participants from Michigan plan to fly to El Paso Nov. 14. Whinston plans to drive with a caravan, which will make its first stop at a detention center in Brazil, Ind. They will pick up more people at the Indiana Hebrew Congregation. Then they plan to stop at a detention facility in Terra Haute. In St. Louis, they plan to visit with a Honduran man taking sanctuary in a local church. Then, they head to the Texas-Mexico border.

Why Drive?

Rabbi Whinston recently had an experience with driving as activism. Yeni Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala in May, had her children taken from her. They were sent to New York, while she was held in Arizona. When she was released on bail in July, a relay team drove her from Arizona to see her children again. Whinston said, “I had the honor of driving her from Ann Arbor to Pittsburgh. It was the most important thing I have done in a long time.”

Gonzalez described her life in a village in Guatemala entirely controlled by gangs. She did not leave her house except to go to work. She was terrified her 11-year-old son would “either be recruited by a gang or killed by one.”

So, she decided to head to the U.S. with her children.

Whinston asked her if she would still have decided to come if she had known about the policy of separating children from their parents. She instantly replied: “No.  I would not have come.”

Even now, some children are still separated from their parents. The government may not even know where the children are.

Whinston said his drive with Yeni Gonzalez “shattered me, changed me.”

In recent talks he’s made, Whinston has pointed out that the 11 Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh not just because they were Jews — it was not just an act of hatred of Jewish people — it was also an attack on Jewish values.

The alleged killer said he wanted to kill all Jews because Jews support immigrants, specifically HIAS, an organization formed to support immigrants.

“We take our own values seriously,” he said. “We take care of the stranger. It is our Torah and our value, especially given our history. I am not politicizing this massacre. Those were his words, the killer’s words. We have to live up to our own values.”