From Strangers to Neighbors

Synagogue Bnai Keshet is joined by other congregations to form the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, who renovated an apartment to house immigrants currently at risk of being deported.

Driving down South Fullerton Avenue would not spark the interest of many. There are houses lined up closely on the right, and a synagogue that lies on the property to the left. Seemingly, nothing is out of the ordinary on this Montclair street.

Behind the doors of the temple is Bnai Keshet, a vibrant Reconstructionist synagogue whose community supports and embraces diversity while preaching equality for all.

Behind the doors of the three floor mansion next door is additional space for worship and prayer. However, the third floor was left as an apartment from when it was built in 1906. After renovation, it now holds a family who escaped from the humanitarian crisis in Honduras, and is at risk of being deported

It took this family of five from January to March to travel to the United States from Honduras, which is considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth due to the rise of gang warfare and extreme violence. The mother and father are followed by an 11 year-old who is partially blind, a 3 year-old, and a baby just 9 months old.

They speak no English, have no other family members or friends, and came with little resources. The Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, an organization made up of several local congregations, was put into contact with them and was able to house them in this vacant apartment and provide them with a safe space.

“There were many internal meeting to discuss whether or not we should use the space in this way,” said Eric Scherzer, a key volunteer at Bnai Keshet, the congregation which started the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance. “It was controversial because we are offering the space to someone that does not have legal status to be here. ”

Up until now, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not come onto religious property to make an arrest. Scherzer is currently involved working with lawyers to get this Honduran family legal residency, as after their parole expires in one year, they will be illegal immigrants and can be deported.

“The legal advice that we have is that if we were publicly saying that this person is being housed in our space, then we wouldn’t be harboring a fugitive and would not be violating the law. We would not be harboring because we would not be secretive about it,” Scherzer said.

In December of 2017, Rabbi Elliot Tepperman announced that Bnai Keshet would become a sanctuary synagogue, allowing undocumented immigrants to stay on the property next door, which had been vacant for years. Bnai Keshet was joined in their efforts by the First Congregational Church of Montclair and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, creating the start of the alliance.

“We want to do sanctuary work 90% to help the actual individuals at risk, but 10% to draw attention to the current immigration issues at hand and get the attention of public officials,” said Ariann Weitzman, the second rabbi at Bnai Keshet.

Once the apartment was renovated with the help of volunteers from several congregations, the alliance was able to open the doors to refugee families.

“There were a million volunteers- slight exaggeration, but there were many, many people of all ages from all around the Montclair community that helped fix up the place,” said Weitzman.

“The space was pretty decrepit at first,” said Peter Wert, a volunteer at the First Congregational Church at Montclair, one of the first congregations to join the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance. “There were pipes and electric exposed, I was thinking, ‘how are people allowed to be in here?’. But it’s been amazing to see how far it’s come.”

Although Bnai Keshet holds the physical property for the families, the community and volunteers of the First Congregational Church has been a vital source of much needed support.

The first family that was housed in the apartment earlier in the year was brought to the alliance’s attention by Faith in New Jersey, a network of faith leaders aimed at solving social justice issues.

Mutumbo Kayima brought his wife and son with him from the Congo, and stayed in this Montclair apartment for a month in January. Once they obtained political asylum, the family moved to a French-speaking community in Cincinnati where the father found work. While they were here, the surrounding volunteers came together to support them.

“It was so amazing to be apart of,” Wert said. “We found translators so we could have conversations with them. They couldn’t drive obviously, so we went out and got groceries for them. For our new family, the needed a crib. So we gave them one we had. I’ve taken away more from this experience spiritually than I have given, it’s just amazing.”   

Wert started to laugh and said, “It’s funny actually, I remember asking what meat they wanted for dinner, and all they said was when they could get social security cards. I was thinking like pork or chicken, but that works too!”

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair has been another organization that has been beside Bnai Keshet and the beginnings of the Montclair Sanctuary from the start.

“We want to change the world,” Reverend Anya Sammler-Michael said. “That starts with helping our community. We believe here that everyone is equal, and when Rabbi Ariann and Rabbi Elliot came to us asking if we wanted to join forces in the alliance, there was no doubt in our community.”

We want to change the world.

Reverend Anya Sammler-Michael

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation recently held a fundraising drive to raise money to support the needs of the Honduran family living on Bnai Keshet’s property. They are “happily overwhelmed” at the moment with all of the other volunteering they are doing, such as work within their Undoing Racism Committee and Earth Justice Team

“The positive thing about Trump taking office is that the efforts around social justice issues have amped up,” Mary O’Dea, a resident of Montclair for over 30 years said. “I think it’s great what these congregations are doing. It makes me want to help out more when you are actually faced with a family at real risk, instead of just hearing about it on the TV.”

The birth of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance stems from the fact that each person’s family was, at one point, immigrants to the United States.

“As Jews, our ancestors were not wanted here either, even when they were going through something as horrific as the Holocaust,” Scherzer said. “We know what it’s like to be banned, to be unwanted. If we can help even a few families feel safe and welcomed, then I’m extremely happy.”

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