Getting what you wish for

Posted by Roberta Elliott on Wed, Apr 07, 2010 at 16:28 pm

Sometimes you actually get what you wish for – and there are no regrets involved. Last November, I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah at Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Congregation in Montclair, NJ. In preparation, I assigned myself a project that was suited to the subject of the Torah parsha, or portion of the Bible, that I studied for my ceremony. The subject, in broad terms, was “kindness to the stranger;” my project was to visit detainees at Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC), the federal facility where illegal arrivals and immigrants are detained in the New York area. To get started, I enrolled in a training session with Sojourners Detention Center Visitor Program, organized by Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It seemed fairly straight forward, so at my first opportunity, I joined Sojourners for a Tuesday evening visit. The first time, I was mentored and shared a visit with a man from Ghana. When I returned the next week, he had disappeared – most likely to a neighboring jail – and I was assigned a young Chinese girl. Over the months we bonded as she languished in detention and what was once a bi-weekly commitment turned into a weekly visit to offer her companionship. She was finally released a couple of weeks ago. But I digress…

In my d’var Torah (discussion of my Torah portion) at my bat mitzvah, I stated that what I really wanted to do was set up a Jewish volunteer visitation project. The two NY-area visitation services that I knew of were both church affiliated, but I felt that, since the commandment to be kind to the stranger found its basis in the Hebrew Bible, it was important for the Jewish community to be involved formally in detainee visitation. I furthermore felt it was important for us Jews to really be “a light unto the nations,” and not just give lip service to the idea. So many detainees are African and Asian Muslims that I felt positive exposure to the Jewish community would be important.

Like so many things I’ve set out to do in the past few years, I had no idea how I would get from point A to point B; I just knew that I was determined to do it. The important lesson I’ve learned is that there are few things out of reach if you approach them one step at a time.

At the reception following my bat mitzvah, several people came up to me and told me they’d be interested in visiting detainees. One of them was the chair of my synagogue’s social action (tikkun olam) committee, so I followed up with her and several weeks later made a presentation to the full committee in hopes that I would get several volunteers. At that first meeting six people stepped forward, enough to organize a training session, this time with First Friends, another visitation group, which works out of Elizabeth. Greg Sullivan, a volunteer with FF, came to Bnai Keshet and trained the group; his colleague, Sister Regina, soon provided me with names of detainees we could visit.

Unlike Sojourners, which runs mini-vans from Manhattan to EDC twice a week, this operation was going to be much smaller. I determined the best way to organize it was through a buddy system – having two visitors go together every other week at a predetermined time that was convenient to both of them, rather than going as a group. It also made sense to avoid the days that Sojourners and FF were visiting, so as not to get in each others’ way since some of us visited the same detainees. It worked out perfectly – there were now 8 of us, including a mother and her 13-year old son, who was visiting as his bar mitzvah project – and we all seemed to be divided already by pairs geographically and socially.

We have now been visiting regularly since the beginning of the year. I am particularly moved by the level of engagement of these volunteers – everyone takes this very seriously, and so far no one has cancelled, in fact they keep seeking additional visitation opportunities. At the moment, two volunteers are visiting a man who is about to be deported – leaving behind a wife, three children, and 20 years in the U.S. Because his entire family is illegally in the U.S., none of them have been able to visit him since he was taken into detention many months ago. His cadre of volunteer visitors have become his family and the two in my group are going to great lengths to make arrangements with his wife to pick up a suitcase filled with his clothes and deliver it to him at EDC. Their dedication to him is inspiring – it is unlikely that they will ever see him again, but in the meantime they feel it’s their sacred responsibility to help him as much as possible.

In the meantime, I have spoken to another synagogue and have one additional volunteer, and am scheduled to speak at a third synagogue in my area in the near future. Additionally, there will be an article in the local Jewish newspaper in the next couple of weeks that should further spread the word. More importantly, HIAS has decided to take on this project as a pilot under the recently launched National Jewish Center for Refugee, Immigrant & Integration Services – with an eye to setting up a network of Jewish visitation projects around the country.

Back to getting what you wish for…

I have found visitation to be extremely gratifying. It seems not only to benefit the detainee I’m visiting, but has improved the quality of my own life. This week’s visit was more meaningful for me than most. It was my first visit with a Somali man, who had been detained last December. A former journalist, he is extremely well-educated, very politically active – and a Muslim. We immediately “clicked” and discussed the political situation in Somalia at great length – where he had been tortured by Al Shebaab, the Islamist insurgency group there – and the merits of his case to seek asylum in the U.S. I mentioned that I worked for an immigration organization and was, therefore, familiar with the general situation in Somalia.

At several points during the conversation, he asked me which immigration organization I worked for and I kept ducking the question until I woke up and remembered why I wanted to start a Jewish visitation group—to expose others, including Muslims, to the good works (and hearts) of Jews. So, I bucked up my courage and told him that I worked for HIAS, a Jewish organization. His eyes lit up as he proudly announced to me that he had recently been reading about the Torah and the Talmud in the library. When I expressed some surprise, he explained that since coming to the U.S. he had had his first encounters with Jews. His intake screener at EDC had been Jewish (Aleks Milch, an attorney from HIAS’ asylum unit, as it turns out), his first visitor had been Jewish, and now me.

He then declared: “I’ve had only good experiences with Jewish people – they have made a very good impression on me.”

I could hardly contain myself, as I realized I could have written this script. Exactly what I had imagined would happen had happened! Good deeds by Jews (mitzvot, commandments, whatever you call them) really do reflect well on all of us. I feel very privileged to be involved in this way and want to thank my colleagues at First Friends and Sojourners – especially Carol Fouke Mpoyo –for helping me set up this Jewish visitation project and for their continued guidance and concern for its success. We really can be a light unto the nations, or at least shed some well-need light into this world.

Finally, this project needs a name – please, help us name it! Ideally, its name should be meaningful Jewishly (Hebrew suggestions welcomed!)Please suggest names in the comment section.


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