Why The Immigrant Red Card Is Front And Center At This Jewish Community Center
By Rabbi Joanna Samuels
This past November, the day after the national election, and 15 years after I was ordained, I woke up to the fact that I am a rabbi. It was not as though I had forgotten, but it had not been a prominent aspect of my day-to-day work experience in some time. As the Executive Director of a large, multicultural, socio-economically diverse community center, my days are filled with program management, fundraising, and understanding government funding, A good day is spent supporting staff, setting vision, and holding the aspirations of connectedness across race, class, and religion. A more usual day is spent navigating an unexpected visit from the Department of Buildings.
But since the dark morning after the election, when I set up a coffee pot in our busy lobby and put a sign up that said “free coffee, free hugs”.I have understood that my role is also a spiritual one and that the Center’s job is a spiritual one, as well. Our collective work has become, in these months, the work of the best kinds of houses of worship: to comfort the frightened, to hold a narrative of hope, and to affirm the truth — persistently — that love, justice and human connection are the only way forward.
The coffee pot and the hugs were the opening gambit in making our center’s lobby, and by extension, our whole building, a place that ministered to spiritual needs. Coffee and hugs were followed by, on January 20th, the unveiling of a large mural titled “We the People” that included the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and Chinese. On the Monday after inauguration, we invited our entire community to sign it in a powerful public ritual.
Our current exhibit features the Red Card, a public information project created by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center to inform people of their constitutional rights, regardless of immigration status. We worked with curator Rachel Libeskind to transform the Red Card (small index-card sized leaflets) into large fabric flags in 5 languages, which now hang in the entryway of our community center. In addition to the flags, we have the Red Cards themselves for people to take, as well as a wall of additional information about what steps people can take given the immediate threat to DACA.
Our aim is to inform, certainly. But it is also to affirm.
We want to affirm that our center is a place where our community can be safe. We serve a large number of recent immigrants, who have felt particularly vulnerable in the face of hateful and divisive political rhetoric.
We want to affirm that we, an organization founded by Jewish immigrants, stand together with those whose immigrant story is more recent, and whose foothold in this country feels less secure.
Finally, we want to affirm that this multi-faith multi-cultural community center that takes care of the body and the mind, also, with great love, can take care of the soul.
In a contemporary version of the central confessional prayer of Yom Kippur, we ask God’s forgiveness for the sin of averting our eyes. Sometimes when we avert our eyes it is due to the shame of ignoring someone or something when we ought to be intervening. Other times, it is when our own fear or shame makes it too frightening to allow ourselves to be noticed. People who are seeing the Red Card at the Manny Cantor Center are both types of those people. They are people who need to be reminded that anti-immigrant rhetoric means that countless human beings are living in terror. These people need to be reminded to speak out and to act.
But the other, beloved souls who enter our sacred lobby every day, so afraid of lifting their eyes to meet this broken world, lest they be noticed, or found out, or deported, I hope they too are taking in the Red Card. I hope they are learning that they have rights. I hope they are seeing that they have allies. I hope they are, even for a moment, reminded that we are in this together, and we are all deserving of dignity, love, and justice.
If you are interested in displaying The Red Card in your community, please contact us at [email protected].
Rabbi Joanna Samuels serves as the Executive Director of Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center.