Purim teaches us that there is a time for rending our clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes, and there is a time for confronting the king. The Dulles Justice Coalition, a non-partisan alliance of attorneys and other volunteers, sprung up quickly in the hours after the January 27 Executive Order on Immigration. The order temporarily suspended entry into the United States by foreign nationals from seven countries, as well as the Refugee Admissions Program. The response of the DC Jewish community to this modern-day Purim story shows just how much we have taken to heart the lesson of Mordechai and Esther.
The executive order (EO) wreaked havoc on airports around the country and around the world. Passengers embarked from foreign destinations with valid visas, and landed to find that their visas had been summarily revoked. Some of these travelers have lived in the United states for decades and have Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status, some were students at American universities, and some were tourists.
Many Americans saw this as a nonpartisan issue: regardless of what anyone believed should be done about immigration reform, great numbers of people believed that implementing the EO without notice separated families, broke the promise that America made to immigrants by revoking legal visas that had already been issued, and could be violating people’s constitutional rights. Furthermore, people from both sides of the political spectrum acted on their belief that every person found by the courts to be entitled to legal representation should have representation.
A hastily assembled group of attorneys, translators, and other volunteers descended upon airports nationwide. The country watched in amazement while news crews filmed lawyers––some in suits, some in jeans and sneakers–– sitting at makeshift tables and on floors at Dulles, JFK, Logan, O’Hare, and LAX, amongst others. The attorneys set up printers and workstations, and hastily drafted petitions for habeas corpus based on information provided by friends and family members who arrived at the airports to pick up a loved one only to find that the passenger never emerged from customs. Some attorneys were called in by their law firms’ volunteer coordinators, some came from legal aid organizations, and many just showed up thinking that they could help. Offers of help came from professional translation service agencies, and from individuals who just happened to speak another language. Donations of food for the volunteers poured in. The outpouring was moving to so many who encountered it.
One of the most inspiring and beautiful things that I have encountered in volunteering for the Dulles Justice Coalition is the embrace of people of all religions, skin colors, and nationalities in this struggle. The EO came down just as Shabbat was coming in, and many observant Jews were unaware of its existence until they read the newspaper on Shabbat morning, or even until after Shabbat. Some Jews rushed to the scene right after Havdalah. By Sunday, 48 hours after the EO was signed, there were many members of my Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue community on the ground to bring donations of food and power cords; to lawyer; and to help with translation. No doubt there were many others from congregations all over the DC area whom I did not recognize.
In chapter four of the megillah, Mordechai told Esther “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish.” Mordechai and Esther wanted to live in safety, side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors. Throughout our sacred texts, we repeatedly learn the message that we cannot be silent, that we have to look out for our brothers and sisters, that we are not the only people to have been strangers in a strange land, and that every discrimination against our fellow man is a threat to our own people. Because we were threatened, it is our sacred duty to help others wherever we perceive a threat.
As the child of a Jewish refugee who was brought to America from Germany under the auspices of HIAS after World War II, I was profoundly moved by the plight of people from seven majority-Muslim nations seeking a safe haven from oppressive governments. As the mother of an adopted Latino son whose American birth certificate is stamped “Not Proof of Citizenship,” I am keenly attuned to the insecurity that can accompany even legal immigrants into this country. As a Jew, I have my feelers out for any laws that could potentially target one particular religion. Finally, as a mother devastated by losing a child mid-adoption because the Russian government suddenly changed the laws in the middle of the process, I understand firsthand the pain of a family that is torn apart by a sudden shift in the legal landscape.
This is what has motivated me to volunteer. I have been overjoyed to have seen so many members of my Jewish communities support this effort as well. Many of my friends and acquaintances who are not lawyers have helped by offering to translate, or bring food to the airport volunteers. I noted on Facebook at one point that first week that every time I went to Dulles, I ran into someone from my shul. Parents and staff (acting as individuals) from Berman Hebrew Academy and JPDS have contributed to the effort. I’ve personally been on shift at the airport when volunteers from three different synagogues have dropped off food. The Muslim and Jewish lawyers joke about how having kosher food also helps out the Muslims, some of whom observe similar dietary restrictions.
Perhaps most touchingly, a group of Berman Hebrew Academy students made welcome cards for us to hand out to immigrants landing at Dulles. The cards, many of which identified the writers as Jewish students, brought amazed smiles to the faces of the immigrants–– and tears to the eyes of Muslims who volunteered as attorneys and translators. Their joy at feeling that they weren’t alone–– and that these sentiments were coming from Jews in particular–– was palpable. I wish that I had recorded some of the many times that someone asked me, “Jewish students really made these? For us?” Yes, for you. What a kiddush Hashem. What nachas. I think Mordechai and Esther would be proud.
It’s a month later, but attorneys, translators, and non-attorney volunteers are still at Dulles airport every day to assist those affected by the EO. Each one of these volunteers is making room for this new commitment despite obligations to jobs, families, and everyday duties. The legal battle over the original order is ongoing, and a new EO is anticipated and may have been promulgated by the time this goes to press. Yet still, Dulles Justice volunteers show up day after day to protect the constitutional and legal rights of immigrants, refugees, and citizens–– and they are doing it very much with the support of many in the local Jewish community.
To volunteer your time or provide food and support, go to the Dulles Justice website at https://www.dullesjustice.org/.
Nicole Goldstein is a mom, an attorney, and journalist/writer living in Washington, DC. She was a columnist for The New York Law Journal, and is currently writing a book about Theodore Roosevelt and the psychology of naming children after people.