Sanctuary Synagogue

Synagogue in Montclair NJ provides a sanctuary space for immigrants at risk of deportation. 


Synagogue B’nai Keshet of Montclair, NJ has turned a one-bedroom apartment into a sanctuary for immigrants seeking asylum or at risk of deportation. The synagogue is part of a larger group called, The Montclair Sanctuary Alliance in which different houses of worship work together to bring aid to immigrants and those in need. Mutombo Kayime, from the Republic of the Congo was detained in Elizabeth, NJ for 9 months after coming to the United States seeking asylum for him and his family. B’nai Keshet helped the family reunite after 3 long years of being apart and their work continues to help others in distress. 

In January of 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order pausing all refugees from entering the United States. The order also enforced a policy in which citizens from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia experienced a 90-day visa suspension with minor exceptions. Some referred to the order as the “Muslim ban” since the seven countries effected are of Muslim majority. “The fact that the travel ban was targeted based on religion, was something that awoke memories in those of us whose families have been touched by the holocaust,” said Eric Scherzer, a volunteer of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance and member of B’nai Keshet. After the news of the travel ban, members of B’nai Keshet started to think of how they could be of use to those affected by the current political climate. 

MONTCLAIR, NJ 03/05/19 Directly next to synagogue B’nai Keshet sits Red Gables, the building that hosts the one bedroom sanctuary apartment which was build in 1906.

Although B’nai Keshet is a synagogue, they also own a building alongside the temple that resides on the property known as Red Gables. The building was built in 1906 and designed by Montclair artist Florence Rand Lang. Before coming into B’nai Keshet’s possession, the property was previously home of the Yard School of Art for 25 years. Original owner Lang was a prominent artist of Montclair and known for her woodcarving skills that can be found throughout Red Gables and reflect styles of the Gothic period. “There’s a building next door that has in the past been an apartment and then fell into disuse and we thought that we could put that into service for a community that was under attack and distress”, said Scherzer. 

The Montclair Sanctuary Alliance is made up of several congregations throughout the Montclair area including: Faith in NJ, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair, and First Congregational Church. Although B’nai Keshet had the space to provide to those in need, it was not in proper condition for use. Over 100 volunteers within the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance came together to renovate the apartment into a sanctuary space. “The idea was that we wanted to do this as a community, as a Montclair community”, said Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, assistant Rabbi and director of congregational learning at B’nai Keshet. 

“The idea was that we wanted to do this as a community, as a Montclair community.”

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman

The Montclair Sanctuary Alliance is made up of several congregations throughout the Montclair area including: Faith in NJ, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair, and First Congregational Church. Although B’nai Keshet had the space to provide to those in need, it was not in proper condition for use. Over 100 volunteers within the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance came together to renovate the apartment into a sanctuary space. “The idea was that we wanted to do this as a community, as a Montclair community”, said Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, assistant Rabbi and director of congregational learning at B’nai Keshet. 

In December of 2018 Mutombo Kayime came to the United States seeking asylum for him and his family. After being detained for 9 months in Elizabeth, NJ, Kayime was granted asylum and Scherzer and two other members of the congregation picked him up and brought him to John F. Kennedy airport in which Kayime was reunited with his wife and son who he hadn’t seen for 3 years. The family stayed in the sanctuary apartment for about a month before moving to Ohio. 

MONTCLAIR, NJ January 2019, Mutumbo Kayime (left) sitting with his wife (right) and son (center)

Once the family arrived at the sanctuary, they were greeted with overwhelming support. As fluent French speakers, the Kayime family did not speak English. Although this seemed like a challenge, members of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance joined together to find a translator and even supplied the family with books written in French and toys for their son to play with. 

Although the sanctuary apartment is housing families in need it is still undergoing construction. Plans have been put into place to add an additional bedroom and kitchen to the space. Currently, the apartment has a microwave and fridge and volunteers help provide food and supplies to those staying in the apartment until the renovations are finished. 

MONTCLAIR, NJ 03/05/19 Renovations to install a kitchen in the sanctuary are underway.

B’nai Keshet felt a personal connection to those affected by the President’s travel ban, having been challenged with centuries of discrimination. “For Jews all over the world we have a history of  many centuries of displacement and many centuries of being treated like strangers in communities that we grew up in”, explained Weitzman. 

The Torah, a sacred text within the Jewish faith, has many teachings revolving around the idea of the stranger. Weitzman explained how the Jewish community have experienced being strangers for centuries, dating back to ancient times when their people were enslaved in Egypt. “We have a special obligation to assist people who feel like they are strangers in the community and also to treat them as our neighbor, to love them as our neighbor, as we love ourselves”, said Weitzman. 

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