Sanctuary: a Jewish perspective

This April we celebrated the feast of Pesach, moving from oppression to freedom with G-d’s delivering arm and on our own two feet. The Israelites found sanctuary across the Reed Sea, under Sinai’s shadow, and finally across the Jordan in the Promised Land. The word “sanctuary” has gotten a lot of press lately. It’s a hot-button word, but it has no legal definition, and its use can be both confusing and volatile. I’d like to unpack some different concepts of “sanctuary” a little with you.

For Jews, offering protection to vulnerable immigrant and minority populations is not a new idea. As our Torah teaches us, in Exodus 23:9: “And you shall not impose restrictions upon or oppress a ger [resident stranger] — for you know the soul of the ger because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in 19th century Germany, commented on this verse with the following: “The treatment accorded by a state to the aliens living within its jurisdiction is the most accurate indication of the extent to which justice and humanity prevail in that state.” Further, we read even more explicitly in Leviticus 19:34, “The ger living amongst you shall be for you like one of your citizens. You must love him like yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your G-d.”

Indeed, the “sanctuary city” itself has precedents in our Torah. Six cities of refuge – arei miklat – were established by Moshe (see Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19), to which someone guilty of manslaughter or murder could flee and live, unmolested, and from which the person went free after the High Priest died. Talmud (Makkot 10a) tells us that these cities should have water, protective legions, market streets, and even a source of livelihood for each person who fled to them, as instructed in Deuteronomy 4:42 “And he shall flee to this city and live.” In the Middle Ages, churches in England took on the function of these ancient Jewish cities. For over a thousand years (600 CE-1621 CE), anyone fleeing the law who made it inside the doors of a church was safe from punishment, so long as they stayed inside that building.

Faith communities around the United States today, including an interfaith group of clergy here in Haverhill of which I am a part, are revisiting the concept of “sanctuary” from a modern perspective.  Modern sanctuary combines elements of all of its historical forms. Sanctuary can look like a network of places of worship and individuals, cooperatively offering support to undocumented immigrants who have no criminal history, and who are at immediate risk of deportation. Sanctuary often highlights the cases of undocumented people whose young children have legal status, and the families fear to be torn apart.

The characteristics of the modern sanctuary movement:

  1. Sanctuary is composed of
    1. Site (a sheltering religious space in which someone at risk for deportation can live for a short period of time. Worship spaces have historically been considered “sensitive” locations by Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE), at which they prefer not to arrest and detain people.)
    2. Supplies (food, clothing, running water, books, &tc.)
    3. Services (medical services, legal services, companionship for people forced to stay in one space without going out)
    4. Presence (Religious communities are particularly well-equipped to provide presence. They can show up and leverage social privilege to create social pressure on immigration officials when a person is about to be detained. They can bear witness, saying clearly that the deportation of those whose only crime is presence in our country, is not normal and not acceptable. Presence does not mean blocking the path of an ICE official who has a warrant. Presence means showing up and standing in nonviolent solidarity.)
  2. Sanctuary is temporary. Sanctuary is not a long-term solution for an undocumented immigrant. Staying in sanctuary can buy a person time, allowing their case to be resolved positively through the legal system.
  3. Sanctuary works best when it is public. Religious spaces that offer sanctuary, and people who support undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary, do not attempt to conceal them from ICE. Rather, they hope to raise the visibility of the immigrants’ cases, creating pressure on ICE to allow the people to stay legally in the USA.

Judaism mandates compassion towards the helpless of our civil society, reminding us of the times when we’ve been less-than-citizens ourselves. For anyone in our community who is moved to engage in the work of sanctuary today in our world, I believe that our texts and our history support us.

This reflection appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of the Temple Emanu-El Bulletin (Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill, MA)