August 20, 2019 Faith

Never Again is Now


By Jessica Leeds Richman

To say our country is in an immigration crisis would be an understatement. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is still separating families at the border and in their homes and placing them in “detention centers.” While ICE says they maintain 'humane' conditions, several reports point to horrible realities: standing room only cells, children going unfed and unwashed, and babies denied physical affection.

There’s been a recent debate around whether or not it’s appropriate to label these detention centers as “concentration camps,” given the term’s association with Nazi Germany. But concentration camps exist beyond the Third Reich, just as genocide has continued after the Holocaust.

As a Jewish person, I find the Holocaust to be one of the most horrifying atrocities throughout history; I also think that what’s happening at the border fits the definition of “concentration camps” by Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies historian and a lecturer at the University of Virginia.

“Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group,” Beorn writes. “Usually because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they're putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way."

Some people, like the leadership at the Holocaust Museum, say that comparisons to Nazi Germany should be off limits, arguing that they “exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel.”

While the museum wishes to protect and defend survivors and its reasoning is noble, a concentration camp is a concentration camp regardless of time and location.

I don’t make this point lightly. Being Jewish has always been a core part of my identity. I don’t identify as very religious, per se, but I am 100 percent culturally Jewish. I grew up in an entirely Jewish family and we lit candles, said blessings over grape juice (our substitute for wine), and ate challah every week to welcome Shabbat. I attended Jewish day school, and went to Temple for Sunday school and major holidays. For my bat mitzvah—the Jewish coming of age ritual that takes place at age 13—I conducted an entire hour and a half morning service by myself.

“Judaism, to me, is both an external and internal experience. We find ways to work on healing the world and to work on ourselves. To be in covenant with the divine is to be in covenant with each other. Relationships are what it’s all about; if we find the divine in our relationships, then how we treat each other matters.”

– Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif.

When I started to look at colleges, I knew I wanted to go to a school with a strong Jewish community. Ultimately, I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio and I felt right at home in its small but mighty Hillel. I held multiple board positions, and eventually became co-president of the organization. My goal was to foster a sense of home and community for other Jewish young adults, in order to give back to the organization that was there for me as a nervous, first-year college student.

The application of social justice holds a special place in my heart. Before I had the proper terminology to describe intersectionality, feminism, anti-racism, and equality, I knew that fighting for equity of all people would be part of my life’s mission and was further solidified by my Jewish background.

“Judaism, to me, is both an external and internal experience,” said Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif. “We find ways to work on healing the world and to work on ourselves. To be in covenant with the divine is to be in covenant with each other. Relationships are what it’s all about; if we find the divine in our relationships, then how we treat each other matters.”

As a constantly persecuted people, Jews know that our strength comes from community and helping one another—not because we are told to, but because it is the right thing to do. My synagogue has hosted events focused on tikkun olamacts of kindness performed to repair the world. Sanhendrin, a tracate (section of the Talmud) of Nezkin (tractate dealing with damages) claims that the actions of each person reverberate around the world—no matter how big or small.

The phrase tikkun olam originates in the Mishnah (a collection of classical rabbinic teaching assembled in 200 C.E.) and is cited as legislation working to bring dignity and protection to oppressed people. Tikkun olam also connects to Shomrei Torah—Guardians of the Torah. In a sermon, Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., discussed the origins of his synagogue’s name. To Rabbi George, acting in accordance with Shomrei Torah remembers the roots of our past while maintaining a forward-thinking vision. As such, we must respect where we come from, but that doesn’t mean that we should refrain from questioning and changing our present to work toward a more equitable future.

American Jewish Congress solidarity during Montgomery March, 1965
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, 1963
American Jewish Congress Chartered Bus, New York to Washington for the March on Washington, 1963

It’s clear that Judaism and social justice are intrinsically linked. Jewish people showed up for the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s as freedom riders and as supporters of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jews also came together at Standing Rock during the #NoDAPL movement. Of course, we could not abstain from action when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sacred sites and burial grounds were being threatened, just as our own have been for centuries.

“Dehumanizing the dead while violating the human rights of the living—subjecting peaceful protesters to pepper spray, sonic cannons, and attack dogs—violates the principle of k’vod habriyot—respect for the dignity of every human being,” read a press release from 200 Rabbis in support of the protests at Standing Rock.

The Torah says "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The commandment comes from the Book of Exodus and references the time where Jews were slaves in the land of Egypt — “strangers” in a foreign land. In the Torah, God reminds us that we were treated poorly and therefore we must ensure that others do not face the same plight.

Today, this statement is of the utmost importance as Jews take action against the inhumane atrocities committed by ICE.

An organization named Never Again Action recently formed in response to the family separation and concentration camp imprisonment happening at our southern border. Jewish organizers of different affiliations have recognized these horrors as a recurrence of 1940s Germany. While many people took action and resisted the Nazi regime, such as the White Rose Society that inspired this blog by the Romero Institute, there were still countless folks who stood idly by. For decades we have said “never again” when referencing the cruelty of the Holocaust.

As Jews, and as human beings, we must recognize that never again is now.