Nation’s largest Jewish denomination encourages congregations to protect undocumented immigrants

They say Jewish teaching compels devotees to treat “strangers in our midst with justice and compassion.”

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. CREDIT: AP/Haraz Ghanbari
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. CREDIT: AP/Haraz Ghanbari

Leaders of the largest Jewish denomination in North America are encouraging member congregations to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation, arguing that Jewish teaching compels devotees to treat “strangers in our midst with justice and compassion.”

Last Friday, the Board of Trustees for the Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish branch in the United States — voted to adopt a resolution calling on members to consider joining the New Sanctuary Movement, a growing phenomenon where houses of worship shelter undocumented immigrants who might otherwise be deported by the federal government. The method, which was also utilized under the Obama administration, takes advantage of an internal policy within the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency that discourages officers from raiding “sensitive locations” like hospitals, schools, and churches.

The Board’s resolution, which also called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and for President Trump to maintain pro-immigrant executive orders enacted under Obama, rooted its support for sanctuary in the scriptural example of Nathan, a Jewish prophet. Nathan challenged King David for committing adultery, a move that board members described as “an exemplary biblical model for confronting a state authority that wields its power unjustly and abusively.”

The resolution also listed other ways for the nearly 900 Reform Jewish congregations in North America to lend their support to the cause — including alternatives to offering physical sanctuary:

[The Union for Reform Judaism] recommends that congregations, after discussion within their congregations and with legal counsel, respond to the need to protect the lives and well-being of undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation by adopting a plan that could include one or more of the following:

1. Providing sanctuary in the form of temporary shelter within their facilities;

2. Providing legal assistance to fight deportation cases; and

3. Providing material, financial or educational support;

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — the group’s Washington office — celebrated the passage of the resolution.

“Today, we urge congregations to protect undocumented immigrants facing deportation by adopting a plan for providing resources, temporary shelter, legal assistance, or other forms of support to those in need,” Pesner said in a statement. He noted that many synagogues have already offered sanctuary, which he said was in keeping with the Reform Jewish tradition: “The Reform Movement has a history of providing support in the form of advocacy and sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries, and now we will do so for those fearing deportation from our own.”

“The Reform Movement has a history of providing support in the form of advocacy and sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries, and now we will do so for those fearing deportation from our own.”

The number of faith communities offering sanctuary has grown exponentially since Trump’s election, with churches, synagogues, mosques, and others rushing to protect immigrants from being swept up in the administration’s rapid escalation of deportation raids. Activists estimate that hundreds of congregations across the country have now pledged to open their sanctuaries and worship halls to undocumented immigrants, and earlier this week a group of more than 100 Buddhist leaders signed a letter that partly encouraged their fellow faithful do the same.

Prominent leaders in faith groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ have spoken in favor of sanctuary, but the Union for Reform Judaism appears to be the first major religious community to endorse the movement in a formal way at the denominational level, encouraging all members to take up the cause.

Still, the longterm effectiveness of the tactic is uncertain. ICE’s deportation strategy has grown increasingly aggressive under the Trump administration, with agents conducting raids outside church hypothermia centers and even detaining immigrants who show up to meetings hoping to obtain green cards. It remains to be seen if ICE will continue to eschew raids on churches while Trump is president, pushing many pro-immigrant activists to consider harboring immigrants in their homes.