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236 Kane Street / Brooklyn, NY 11231 / 718 875-1550

Me’avdut L’cherut – From Slavery to Freedom

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

To fulfill the Mitzvah of protecting the stranger, to make a personal connection with refugees and their families, and to combat despair in these distressing political times, I have been volunteering in “accompaniment” roles, joining family members, community activists and faith witnesses in immigration courts when those identified by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for possible deportation need to appear.

You may have seen news reports that this past January 10, in nationwide predawn raids, US immigration agents entered 7-11 stores and arrested 21 people in the biggest crackdown of companies suspected of hiring undocumented workers since President Trump took office.

Four Filipino workers were arrested at a 7-11 in Little Neck, Queens as they completed the 7pm to 7am shift. Three were immediately released but one, Larry Villena, was taken right away into detention. Larry, as many Filipinos worldwide, fled the Philippines because of poverty and unemployment and has worked at this 7-11 for ten years. He has no criminal record, and is a deacon in his Church. Despite meager pay, he supports three children in the Philippines, and is also an active care giver for two grandnieces in Queens. Immediately after the raid, 7-11 fired him.

An immigration hearing was set for Larry for February 15. To support him, I went to the Court, in the Homeland Security building on Varick Street. There, I joined Larry’s sister, brother-in-law, niece, two grandnieces, Arturo Romua, a Protocol Officer at the Philippine Consulate, leaders of Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and other faith witnesses. I represented T’ruah: Rabbis for Human Rights.

Family and supporters were able to fill two rows of benches in the small court room. Detention Centers are essentially jails, and Larry entered the courtroom, manacled at the wrists, in an orange jump suit. The Judge, after formal preliminaries, and in a gesture which I guess is not usual in immigration court these days, looked up at Larry’s supporters, smiled, and said “Wow!”. Sean McMahon, a pro bono attorney from the Urban Justice Center, argued for Larry, and presented a folder with 15 letters of support from consular, community and religious groups. Perhaps because of this strong support, the Department of Justice lawyer chose not to argue the government’s case. Larry was released on a relatively low bond and joyously rejoined his family.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that, “the spirit is a still small voice, and the masters of vulgarity use loudspeakers… (Still) there will always remain a spiritual underground where a few brave minds continue to fight”.

I want to thank Larry and his community for reminding me of the true nature of freedom. Freedom is not a gift. It is a responsibility, an obligation, and an inheritance. Released from Egypt, the Israelites celebrate their freedom by becoming Avadim LaShem, servants of G-d rather than Avadim L’Phar’o, servants of Pharaoh. In their new condition, they will not only be directed. They can also strive. They can live lives of creativity, cooperation, and self-discipline. Freedom is an opportunity which may be cherished or squandered.

We are free when we become sensitive to the Spirit within us, to that still, small, divinely-inspired voice that reminds us of the possibility of genuine living, when around us we are bombarded by incidents of violence, encouragements to suspicion, and vulgar distractions from high elected officials.

Larry won an important victory but he remains vulnerable. He may be re-arrested, re-detained and deported without warning. Still, without minimizing the severity of his situation, it also hints at the insecurities of freedom which challenge all of us.

We turn now to preparing our homes, our heads, and our hearts for Passover. The symbolism of Matzah is ambivalent. On the one hand, as we declare at the Seder’s opening, it is Lachma Anya, the bread of the poor, of the afflicted. Then, after we enact and discuss the Exodus, we re-introduce Matzah before the meal. This second time, it is described as a bread of possibility and freedom, recalling the courage and spiritual passion of the Israelites who without provisions followed G-d into the scorching desert.

Matzah is servitude and freedom. The journey from avdut, slavery, to cherut, freedom takes place every hour and every day in the lives of every individual and every nation. Nothing is guaranteed but we always have the ability to choose generosity and involvement over cynicism and distraction. Prepare for Pesach this year by scouring your ovens and cleaning your cabinets, by packing away and selling Chametz, by stocking up on Kosher for Passover goods, and by making personal efforts to lift up those who are still m’shubadim, oppressed.

If you are interested in accompaniment at immigration hearings, the New Sanctuary Coalition is holding a brief training session, just before Passover, on Wednesday March 28, 6:30-8:00pm at the Central Synagogue Main Sanctuary, 652 Lexington Avenue, at 55th Street.

Please join as well our many Synagogue Passover services, and social justice and educational programs.

May our Mitzvot this Passover season lift us, and those around us, miyagon l’simcha, from distress to joy.

Chag Kasher V’smeia’ch,

A Joyous, Kosher Passover to you and your families,

Rabbi Weintraub

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