It was almost noon when two Department of Homeland Security buses finally turned into a church parking lot in northern Phoenix. Volunteers who had been there since around 9 a.m. were lined up and waiting to welcome the travelers into America.
The first family to emerge — a mother holding on to her two children — stepped off the bus, and the volunteers broke into applause, which continued on and off as the rest of arrivees gradually disembarked.
About 30 would-be immigrant families, most from Guatemala, were being dropped off by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) after being cleared for release into the United States to await asylum hearings.
“Bienvenidos!” — welcome! — the volunteers cheered as they shook hands with the parents and children, some of them squinting in the midday sun The mothers and fathers walked along the line of volunteers and smiled back, immigration papers and children in hand.
This scene has replayed itself almost every day over the past five months at the Casa de Oracion No. 2 church, but Jan. 16 was different: among the those waiting welcome the migrants were 12 volunteers from B’nai David-Judea Congregation on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, who had taken a 5:15 A.M. flight from LAX to be there.
They were led by the rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who had announced the trip to Phoenix to his synagogue congregation on Shabbat as well as in an email, calling for volunteers to help out the arriving families.
Earlier that day, Rabbi Kanefsky told the group to remember the famous words of Rabbi Akiva, who said that the most important precept of Judaism is to love others as yourself.“
The key word is as ‘yourself,’ in that we have to see, and we do see, all others as being no more and no less than ourselves,” said Rabbi Kanefsky, father of Shalhevet senior Yakir Kanefsky. “May God see our efforts and bless the work of our hands.”
The group from B’nai David had arrived in Phoenix at around 7:15 A.M. local time and driven to Valley Beit Midrash, a Jewish educational organization nearby, where they were met by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, VBM’s president and dean, who has been leading the effort locally through a group he founded called Arizona Jews for Justice (AJJ). AJJ has been helping churches with dropped-off arrivees since December.
Rabbi Yanklowitz, who is also a former Shalhevet teacher, met the group in a small side room on the VBM campus, where he led a brief Torah discussion. Jews, he said, could relate to the feelings of asylum seekers, who are strangers in a foreign land as the Israelites were in Egypt.
Then he introduced campaign organizer Eddie Chavez, who explained the immigration and detention process. Those brought to Phoenix, he said, had been judged to possibly have a legitimate asylum claim and were cleared to stay with family while awaiting a hearing — a status he called “family parole.”
He predicted that many of the arrivees would be sick and would not have showered in days or weeks.
“We’re gonna form kind of a welcome tunnel of people…where the first thing they should see is a smiling face and a hello,” he said. “We would like for everybody to just extend your hand, say hello.”
Sometimes hundreds of asylum seekers are dropped off in a single day, so local churches have been coordinating with ICE to welcome them before sending them off to their families. How long it will be until their court appearance — at which they will try to prove that they’re in danger back at home because of what they believe or who they are — is unknown.
If the churches didn’t take them in, he said, ICE would “drop them off in the street.”
And despite a new immigration policy announced by Homeland Security Dec. 20 under which migrants requesting asylum would be sent to Mexico to await their court hearings, Mr. Chavez confirmed last week that as of Feb. 25, the churches were still greeting more than 100 each day.
“It’s not gonna stop,” he said.
The volunteers then left with Mr. Chavez for the church, carrying suitcases filled with food, medicine, clothes and other donations brought from Los Angeles. Once there they began by unloading the donations into a shed.
The church kitchen was already host to a bustling scene, with church volunteers preparing hot food, setting up hair-washing stations or organizing donated clothes.
Then the work stopped, and all of the volunteers joined hands in a circle on a large expanse of grass outside the church. Rabbi Kanefsky began to speak, and Mr. Chavez translated for the church volunteers who spoke Spanish.
“We are about to be a part of something that we’ve never been a part of before,” Rabbi Kanefsky said. “And no matter what happens…the only thing that we need to remember is the principle of the great teacher Rabbi Akiva: you shall love others as you love yourself.”
Reflecting later that day on what he had said, Rabbi Kanefsky added a thought from Shimon Ben Azzai, a Talmudic scholar of the early second century C.E.
Sometimes people are so different from us that “they don’t fall into the category of kamocha” — as yourself — he said. When that happens, “Ben Azzai says the bigger principle is that God created human beings with tzelem Elokim” — in God’s image.
“You have something fundamental and foundational that you share with every other human being…and that is, you are both created by God, in His image. And that carries with it all kinds of responsibilities and obligations.”
At around 11:45, two white buses, each about 40 feet long with their windows covered, slowly pulled into the parking lot. Mr. Chavez organized the volunteers into a line stretching from the dining hall.
Some started unloading the travelers’ belongings — backpacks and plastic sacks provided by Homeland Security — from the bottom of the buses. ICE agents stepped out of the buses and me with Mr. Chavez and the church’s leader, Pastor Ramon Madrid.
A few minutes later, the arrivees began to file out of the bus. About 75 people were released in all, all welcomed with rounds of applause and smiling faces.
The families followed the line of volunteer greeters into the dining hall where they took seats along four tables. Pastor Madrid welcomed them with a few jokes and explained the logistics related to their departure from the church to their host families, which the volunteers were ready to help them to do.
The pastor then asked everyone to stand up, and began a prayer. His guests stood with their heads bowed and eyes closed, some listening intently and others whispering personal prayers.
“God, we give you thanks this morning because you have permitted us to arrive well to this place,” Pastor Madrid said. “You have kept us. You have protected us. You have blessed us along the way. You have given us safe haven, my Lord.”
A mother held her hands to her face in tears while she listened. The volunteers handed out drinks, rice, and bowls of soup.
“Thank you for Your mercy…,” Pastor Madrid continued. “You protect us, Lord, and now you bring us food to eat….”
Pastor Madrid said Casa de Oracion No. 2 had taken in and sent out more than 5,000 people in the past five months.
As the newcomers ate, Spanish-speaking B’nai David volunteers Monica Sufar, Shanee B. Michaelson and Nikki Sieger spoke with them, collecting their names, ages, origin, destination, medical conditions and a phone number of whomever they were going to be staying with.
Other BDJ volunteers also went from table to table, cutting off the ID wristbands that had been given to them by ICE.
“One or two people wanted to keep it, but most of them looked like they were just happy to get rid of it,” said Jenny Gelb, one of the BDJ volunteers.
The new families were then sent one by one to a repurposed playroom for medical checkups. After being cleared by one of three volunteer examiners, they waited their turn to shower.
It took about four hours for all the travelers to be showered.
Shalhevet alumna Kayla Ablin ‘15 and her mother Lisa Ablin were among the group from B’nai David. Kayla spent most of her time combing and braiding the children’s hair and checking for lice.
She said the dirt and knots in their hair made it hard to check, but it was easier once they were cleaned and freshened up.
Many of the mothers wanted to comb their own daughters’ hair, “which is really nice,” said Kayla. “It’s definitely a sign of comfort for a mom to comb her daughter’s hair.”
Ms. Gelb and BDJ volunteer Hannah Wexler helped the women and girls shower.
“We were soaked, because we were helping the kids scrub their hair,” said Ms. Gelb, who is the mother of Shalhevet alumni Amanda ’05 and Lexi Gelb ‘10.
She said some of the children didn’t know what to do.
“They just stood under the shower, like literally just stood,” she said. “They didn’t know how to use the soap and soap themselves down.”
Others had trouble undressing because of the ankle tracking bracelets that ICE fitted on them to make sure they’d show up for their asylum hearing. Ms. Gelb used scissors.
“They couldn’t pull their jeans off to get in the shower because it got caught in the ankle bracelet,” Ms. Gelb said. “So we just had to make a slit of maybe two or three inches at the bottom of the ankle of the jean so that it could go over the ankle bracelet.”
The jeans and the rest of the migrants’ clothes were then thrown out because they were in such poor condition, she said. The newcomers were given fresh clothes that had been donated.
They were also given new footwear.
“Each person was given a pair of open sandals in case they had sores on their feet — they didn’t want them to wear socks and shoes,” Ms. Gelb said. “Their feet needed to breathe in case they had some blisters or some kind of sores.”
Pastor Madrid tried calling their’ families and arranging travel — by bus, train, or plane. Those whose families were unavailable or who could not afford to buy tickets for them would sleep on mattresses provided by the church. If they did not have a place to go within two days, they would be sent to foster homes.
As they waited, parents sat on the grass watching their children play. BDJ volunteers made trips to Costco to buy clothing and other needed supplies, including cold-cuts and sandwich materials to send them off with. They also bought packs of shoelaces.
As the day went on, more and more families were sent off and the church slowly emptied.
At 4:20 p.m., the group from B’nai David left with Mr. Chavez for a nearby kosher restaurant to draw their day in Phoenix to a close.
It was a very intense experience,” said Ms. Michaelson, one of the Spanish-speaking B’nai David volunteers, looking back on the trip a few days later.
“You don’t often have the opportunity to meet these people face to face.”
She said she was inspired to join the trip by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote about community service and chesed, the hebrew word for “acts of kindness.”
Kayla Ablin said she grew up volunteering and joining this trip was natural.
“My entire upbringing,” Kayla said, “especially at B’nai David, has been around tikkun olam,” the Hebrew phase which means to repair the world.
BDJ volunteer Monica Sufar said it was surprising to see the asylum seekers smiling after the hardships they’d experienced.
“Even though they were coming from where they were coming, they were smiling and they were being very responsive to us,” said Ms. Sufar.
Not all the Jewish volunteers were from Los Angeles. Nancy Greenberg and her husband, Jerry, had been helping out in the church with AJJ since the arrivals started.
“As Jews, we’re commanded to take care of the orphan and the strangers,” Mrs. Greenberg said, “because we were all strangers.”
?The strangers who arrived in northern Phoenix that suggested the goal had been met — at least for that day.
Elmi, 14, spoke to The Boiling Point a few hours after arriving with her father and older sister at the church. She said the journey to the U.S. border was tiring and cold, and the worst part was being intercepted by ICE.
But arriving at the church made up for it.
“The way we were received here was the best part,” Elmi said. “I was happy.
“It was a blessing to know that God placed all these people here to help us, that He has continued to help us and I ask God that he keep sending blessings like this. I feel very blessed.”
Originally published March 3, 2019.
This story won the Simon J. Rockower Awards 2020 First Place in Multimedia Reporting from the American Jewish Press Association, the CSPA 2019 Gold Circle Awards First Place in Sidebar Writing; First Place in News Reporting on Interreligious or Intercultural Events in JSPA’s 2020 Jewish Scholastic Journalism Awards; and First Place in Video Reporting in JSPA’s 2020 Jewish Scholastic Journalism Awards.
JSPA Judges’ Comments: “A very thorough narrative of a service trip to help migrants at the border. Good background, good use of quotes, good reporting and compelling writing.”