By Shana Goldberg and Sophie Pomeranz
For a year, a group has gathered monthly outside the immigration detention facility in Aurora, just off Peoria and 30th.
They gather to protest — and to pray.
It all began over kiddush at Bonai Shalom in Boulder. A little over a year ago, two congregants, Alan Rosenfeld and Dr. Naomi Feiman, were talking with Rabbi Marc Soloway. They were deeply disturbed by reports at the time of parents and children being separated at the border.
Together, they came up with the idea for “Moral Minyan.” It would provide a vehicle to protest policies they found problematic. But it would also provide an opportunity for Rosenfeld, whose mother had recently passed, to recite Kaddish.
The first Moral Minyan was June 28, 2018.
A year later, on Sunday, June 30, 2019, about 100 people gathered in Aurora, a larger group than had come together in recent months.
Perhaps, suggested Soloway when speaking to the IJN, people thought the issue had gone away. “If anything, it’s gotten worse,” he says, a sentiment later echoed by several of the other speakers at the gathering.
Alan Rosenfeld sent out a clarion call should rumored ICE roundups take place: “Are we going to let our neighbors be rounded up? We need to be ready to be here,” he said, invoking a message of civil disobedience.
Feiman and Rosenfeld have been at every Moral Minyan since its inception. They come down from Boulder with a delegation.
An attorney, Rosenfeld is a long-time activist for battered women. Feiman is a pediatrician, which informs her activism on this matter. So does her personal story. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and her mother and grandparents fled Hungary following the Communist takeover after WW II. “Imagine,” she says, “if the Austrian authorities hadn’t put them in touch with organizations helping refugees?”
Feiman talks about the “toxic stress” children in detention facilities suffer. According to her it affects their development, their reaction to stress in the future and even their ability to speak, “because they’ve had these experiences as children.”
Her distress and concern, while perhaps amplified by her profession, was echoed by other speakers and attendees, who nodded and applauded throughout the two-hour gathering.
Most were there as activists, but one younger man told the IJN that he had a personal connection. His wife, who is now a US citizen, came to the US illegally as a child with her parents. “I need to do my part,” he said.
Rabbis, public officials and Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser were among those who spoke.
Invoking an essay on prayer by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Deborah Bronstein, rabbi emerita of Boulder’s Har HaShem, spoke just before the mincha (afternoon) service led by Rabbi Marc Soloway, who also served as moderator for the two-hour gathering.
Soloway, a dual UK-US national, had just an hour earlier returned from a trip to London. “As I walked easily through immigration I thought how incredibly lucky and privileged I am,” he shared. “And it made me feel even more passionate about coming straight here from the airport.”
He called for the protesters, most of whom “have extraordinary privilege . . . to use our privilege to help those who don’t.”
Soloway started the crowd off with a niggun, and punctuated the service and protest with song, inviting up at two points Eden Rosenberg, a teenage musician and activist from his congregation.
Signs with anti-ICE and pro-immigration slogans were visible in the diverse crowd. Other faith groups also attended, including delegations from Trinity Lutheran Church, Jefferson Unitarian and Alandi Ashram in Boulder.
One speaker, activist Bruce Nnco, invoked his heritage as a Japanese-American, recounting the internment camps of WW II. In his estimation, current detention centers are worse, because his family who was interned were able to stay together, he said.
Nnco segued into a strong condemnation of the Aurora facility, which is not operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but a private contractor, GEO. This arrangement has been criticized not only by activists like Nnco, but by Rep. Jason Crow (CO-6), who represents Aurora in Washington, as well as by Aurora City Council member Crystal Murillo, who also spoke at the event.
“Every single one of you, together, will unlock the door to this horrible prison,” he declared.
According to Nnco, procedures within the Aurora facility violate ICE policies, such as, for example, the separation of families. He, along with Murillo, called for more transparency at the Aurora facility. Murillo represents the district in which the facility is located.
Crow, along with Rep. Joe Neguse (CO-2), recently introduced a bill in Congress calling for greater oversight of companies like GEO, the country’s largest private prison provider.
Access is an issue according to Murillo. While the Tri-County Health Dept. is responsible for healthcare services within the facility, she said it was difficult for local politicians to enter the facility and see for themselves what’s going on. Nnco also decried the difficulty of visiting people within the facility, although it appeared that several visitors arrived at the facility during the protest.
“We’ve been trying,” Murillo said, to get better access to the facility. Her message to the passionate crowd was that it takes citizens, not only politicians, to effect change.
Nnco talked about the lack of protest against Japanese-American internment during WW II. “People didn’t stand up,” he said, while noting the appearance at the Moral Minyan of elected officials.
In fact, Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr did protest the internment of Japanese-Americans, and lost his political career over it. Colorado’s Attorney General Phil Weiser mentioned Carr as an example of using one’s voice to protest.
While many speakers invoked the Holocaust and their own families’ immigrant backgrounds, Weiser was also the only speaker to explicitly talk about camps, referring to his mother being born at the end of the Holocaust in a camp not dissimilar to ICE detention facilities.
In his words to the IJN, Soloway said he prefers to stay away from comparisons to the Holocaust.
The most fiery speaker of the day was Joe Salazar, who ran against Weiser for attorney general. The former state representative who was deeply disturbed by the photograph last week of a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, went so far as to suggest open borders, since in his estimation individuals from Central and South America are more indigenous to North American than most Americans.
Andrew Romanoff, Democratic candidate for US Senate, mentioned the net positive benefits of immigration. “We are better off as a country in every way. We are richer economically and culturally and intellectually because we have welcomed people from other lands to contribute their talents.”
Among the rabbis in attendance, representing a range of denominations, was Rabbi Kim Harris of B’nai Chaim in Morrison. This wasn’t her first Moral Minyan, she told the IJN the next morning in a phone conversation.
“I find it inspiring to be with people of like mind and who have the passion to do the right thing,” she says.
For Harris, protesting outside the detention facility is “a duty,” a “moral imperative,” both as Jews and human beings.
“Jews are commanded to care for the other,” she says. “It’s in Leviticus, in the heart of the Torah. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The people in these detention facilities, she says, “have done nothing to be treated this way.”
“Taking children away from their parents, locking them up in cages, without basic necessities of life, is not loving the other,” she says.
“We’re commanded to care for the stranger, to open your arms. These are desperate people fleeing persecution . . . gang violence.
“Not to help them is antithetical to what Judaism teaches.”
Harris cites a passage from Malachi 2:10: “Have we not one father? We’re all created in G-d’s image . . . we all bleed red. We need to acknowledge that we all come from the same source,” regardless of race or ethnicity. “We’re all fellow human beings. We waste so many resources hating each other. It’s really painful.”
Harris said that being at such a demonstration almost makes her feel guilty for the comfortable life she has. “I’d like to trade places” with someone inside such a facility, “even for one night,” she says.
“We ask ourselves: ‘What can I do? But when people come together you can make something happen.
“We have to do something. Even if it’s just prayer.”
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News