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Collective Clout Carries California

Rebecca Altamirano, a teacher and member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, chaperoned a group of high school students on a Civil Rights Movement-themed trip to the deep South that taught them the importance of not being “silent witnesses” whenever they encountered injustice. Shortly after they returned home, she says, “My student Carlos *, 18, looked out of his window and saw a couple being beaten up. Determined not to be a silent witness, he reported the crime to the police, helped them find the criminals, and, at great personal risk, even testified against the perpetrators. But when the police learned that Carlos was an undocumented immigrant, they arrested and deported him to Mexico, where he knew no one. Eventually, his sister used the money she was saving for her education to bring him back to the U.S. Still, we all knew that unless California enacted immigration reform, he could be deported all over again. That’s when I realized I had to get involved to fight for the rights of people like Carlos.”

Last year, Reuben Bank’s friend Wilmar stopped showing up at soccer games. “As a key member of our club soccer team, this raised red flags,” says Reuben, 17, a high school junior and member of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. “I soon found out that his dad, who owned a successful tiling business and had lived in the U.S. 15+ years, had been pulled over for having a broken taillight, and was later arrested for being an undocumented immigrant. Wilmar’s dad was jailed for six months before his lawyer got the charges dropped, and meanwhile my friend had to quit our team to get a job to make ends meet for his family. That’s when I realized: There needs to be immigration reform so families like Wilmar’s will not be torn apart.”

Reuben then discovered that one of his rabbis, Joel Simonds, was involved in Reform CA, an organization of Reform leaders and congregants throughout the state of California committed to working together to address a variety of social injustices, starting with the plight of the state’s 3 million undocumented immigrants.

“I went to a local Reform CA event at my synagogue and then got involved,” Reuben says, “writing to my congressional representatives about the issue and co-writing a program at URJ Camp Newman that taught my fellow campers about immigration reform. I saw that I wasn’t the only one who cared about this issue; my rabbis, my congregation, other California synagogues, and my peers were also passionate about change.”

Seven years ago, our URJ Just Congregations team began training rabbis and congregants throughout the U.S. to effect meaningful social change through participation in local, broad-based community organizing. More than 160 synagogues signed on, signaling a shift in the Reform Movement toward training and organizing “Jews in the pews” to use their collective power in pursuit of tikkun olam, the prophetic call to repair the world.

In 2013, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Peace, Justice, and Civil Liberties Committee helped us launch two campaigns—“Rabbis Organizing Rabbis” on the national level and “Reform CA” in California—both intent on building communities that would express our Jewish values in the public square, and help to heal suffering in our cities, states, and nation.

On the state level, we started in California, where undocumented residents were being deported after arrest for offenses as minor as selling food without a license. Sometimes even coming into contact with police as victims or witnesses to crimes subjected undocumented residents like Carlos to deportation. And because they feared deportation, most undocumented residents who were crime victims or witnesses did not contact the police, which made their communities less safe for everyone.

These law enforcement actions were precipitated by the state’s cooperation with a federal program called Secure Communities that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to hold detainees beyond the normal time for release until ICE officials arrive to begin deportation procedures—a process that often occurs without notification of the individual’s family and results in families being separated indefinitely. Secure Communities had been established to target individuals with a history of serious or violent crimes, but in California was quickly becoming a wide net used to trap and deport undocumented immigrants.

In October 2013, our Reform CA coalition—comprised of more than 120 Reform rabbis and communities fighting for justice for undocumented immigrants—celebrated a major victory: California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the TRUST Act (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools), stipulating that only undocumented residents who have committed specified serious or violent crimes can be jailed for as long it takes Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take them into custody and deport them.

How did our Movement help bring California to this shechechyanu moment in the legislative struggle for immigrant rights?

It began with community organizing. Guided by Just Congregations, Reform Jews in California embarked on an inter-congregational listening initiative in which rabbis and congregants shared hundreds of stories about their political and personal concerns. Many spoke of being deeply pained by California’s poor economy, by a public education system ranked (by some measures) 50th in the country, by deep class divisions, and by the lost “California dream” of prosperity for a growing number of state residents.

In August 2012, 25 rabbis and select lay leaders from California Reform congregations—large and small, suburban and urban, politically and geographically diverse—met in Burlingame to lead and participate in training sessions on the California political system and to imagine the possibilities for social change through building and wielding collective power. Realizing that by acting together to galvanize thousands of Jews across California they might be able to achieve their individual dreams of social change, they formed Reform CA. “For the first time in my rabbinate,” said Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco, “it felt like I had a whole community of colleagues on whom I could call and who would have my back.”

Widening the power base, the participating leaders then initiated conversations with 50 other rabbis throughout the state, asking them: What is the California you dream of? Meanwhile, they engaged in high-level meetings with California’s top campaign and coalition leaders, academics, and legislators to ascertain what issues were critical, current, and potentially winnable over the next two years. From there, the leadership team proposed five possible campaigns—immigration reform, public education, gun safety, California’s Prop 13 tax code, and marriage equality. At a Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis conference, the Reform CA leadership team narrowed down the five to two—immigration and education—and, upon their return home, began soliciting community feedback about the two issues. At Temple Israel in Stockton, Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff learned that the father of one of his religious school students was an undocumented immigrant who had to return to Mexico because of current immigration laws. “Let me be very clear here,” he declared during a Reform CA training session. “There are kids in my religious school who are being affected! This is a Jewish issue.”

Hopes for immigration reform in California had been dashed in 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the TRUST Act after it had passed both state houses, describing it as “fatally flawed” because he said the list of crimes justifying deportation was not comprehensive enough, for example, excluding crimes involving drugs, gangs, and child abuse. Successfully lobbying the governor, the California State Sheriff’s Association, an organization of 58 sheriffs overseeing law enforcement in California’s 58 counties, had voiced strong opposition to the TRUST Act as impinging on the security and safety of California’s residents.

Still, in Governor Brown’s veto message, which he reiterated on Spanish TV, he vowed to work with the legislature to create a bill he could sign. And so, in 2013, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano introduced an almost identical version of the original bill, hoping this time it would pass.

At the time, the coalition working on immigration reform was mainly made up of Latino, Asian, and interfaith groups. We Reform CA advocates recognized the Jewish community’s participation would broaden and diversify the coalition, bolstering its effectiveness. The issue also spoke to our experience as a people, having been strangers in strange lands over many centuries, most recently in America, too.

Reform CA joined the immigration reform battle.

Now that Reform CA was on board, how would our broader coalition achieve justice for California’s undocumented residents?

In March 2013, 70 California rabbis packed a room at the CCAR conference in Long Beach to develop a strategy for the TRUST Act’s passage, then broke out into seven CA regions to co-plan local campaigns. An 18-person rabbinic and lay leadership team would craft statewide strategies and motivate rabbis and congregants to engage in the cause.

A month later, inspired by a Reform CA Passover supplement that asked Reform Jews to share their families’ own immigration stories at the seder table and then lobby their representatives in support of today’s immigrants, hundreds of Jews began sending letters to state legislators and Governor Brown. Rabbis and lay leaders met face-to-face with local Assembly representatives, delivering a message rooted in shared values, such as maintaining families and upholding religious teachings to protect the stranger. Reform leaders also wrote editorials published in local papers. “Unless the Passover story has a modern meaning,” Rabbi David Frank of Temple Solel wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “unless it moves us to act on behalf of those who are still strangers…it is not a story that bears retelling anymore….As it happens, we do know the power and meaning of this story, for in our country there are 11 million undocumented immigrants yearning for a life of hope and freedom…what so many of us already have.”

Meanwhile, every Thursday, Reform CA leaders participated in strategic conference calls with our coalition partners, among them the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and People Inspiring Communities through Organizing (a broad coalition across lines of class, race, and faith). We shared individual group strategies and discussed goals we could achieve together, such as persuading a particular district representative to support the TRUST Act by determining together the best person(s) to meet with that representative. It also turned out that, thanks to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Reform CA had the coalition’s most technologically advanced system to facilitate citizen call-ins to their political representatives, complete with talking points and a one-button push to reach the right legislators. We shared the technology with our partners, who translated the English text into Spanish (press 2 for Español) and engaged their constituents in a calling campaign.

On May 16, 2013 the TRUST Act passed the Assembly by a 44–22 vote.

The next goal was passage in the state Senate.

The California State Sheriffs Association had been lobbying Governor Brown strongly against the bill. After its passage in the Assembly, the governor sat down with bill author Assembly Member Tom Ammiano to introduce amendments he said would be necessary for him to sign it, among them adding misdemeanors and prior immigration violations to the list of crimes necessitating deportation.

Reform CA and our coalition partners knew we had to act. Whichever bill the state Senate passed would be the final legislation making its way to the governor’s office for signature. We needed to uphold a fair and just version of the bill, one that would protect people that had done nothing more than sell food without a license to support their families.

In May, 50 Reform Jews from across the state made their way to the Senate floor to meet with more than 30 legislators, including Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and bill author Ammiano. Steinberg, a supporter of the TRUST Act, told the delegation of lay leaders and rabbis that before meeting with them, he had not considered how these amendments might unfairly affect the immigrant community, but he understood now.

Another senator, spotting the group (some wore yarmulkes), asked what had brought them to the capitol. He was surprised to hear “immigration” and not “Israel.” “Is immigration a Jewish issue?” he asked. Rabbi Lawrence Raphael from Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco quickly replied, “We believe it is,” explaining the biblical imperative to care for the stranger in our midst and the Jewish people’s long struggle for full inclusion under the law.

One month later, more than 100 Reform clergy signed a letter to Governor Brown, delivered by hand, asking him to sign a bill with fair and just language. Reform CA leaders and our coalition partners then adapted the letter for a several-hundred-strong phone campaign to the governor’s office.

On September 9, 2013, right before Rosh Hashanah, the state Senate passed the TRUST Act containing the very language we wanted. The bill was then moved to the governor’s desk for signature. He had until October 13 to sign or veto it. (If he did nothing, it would become law without his signature.)

Immediately we took action. Our coalition partners initiated calls to the governor and staged a sit-in in his office. Reform CA launched a High Holy Day campaign, asking California Reform rabbis to preach or teach texts on immigration and the TRUST Act. Dozens of rabbis made this issue their central message, urging congregants to phone Governor Brown, ask him to sign the TRUST Act, and say “Shanah Tovah.” More than 1,000 Reform Jews made the calls.

Among the rabbis who spoke about immigration to a packed sanctuary was Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. One of his congregants listening in the pews had a relationship with Governor Brown. Fired up by Rabbi Chasen’s sermon, the congregant quickly arranged a conference call with the governor, Rabbi Chasen, and himself.

During their conversation, Rabbi Chasen told the governor that dozens of rabbis throughout California had preached about the TRUST Act on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year: “Up and down the state of California, Reform Jews care deeply about the immigrants in their midst”—a message reinforced by 1,000+ phone calls.

On October 5, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed the TRUST Act into law. Implementation would begin in January 2014. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said after putting his pen to signature. “I’m not waiting.”

Energized by our success, Reform CA is now deciding upon a second campaign to fight injustice. At the December 2013 URJ Biennial, we began asking Californian synagogue leaders, What is the California you now dream of? We are also researching potentially winnable political issues with experts in the field, and building ever-stronger teams to engage Reform congregational communities in deciding and acting upon our next uphill battle.

Reform CA has proven that individuals like us can make a difference—in restoring not only the California dream, but the collective dream of a more just world grounded in the voices and values of our faith.

* Name has been changed to preserve anonymity. 

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin is the Reform CA lead organizer and co-director of the URJ’s Just Congregations.Julie Chizewer Weill is Coordinator of Institutional Advancement at Just Congregations.