April 13, 2024 -

The Two Chambers of Our Hearts

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is from Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team, shared on Yom Kippur, 2019. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

On Rosh Hashanah, I shared how difficult it is for my dad to ask for help. His reflections on why this is, informed all of us how we could more easily ask for help. What I did not share was that my father’s own struggle with self-worth is born from the trauma of being ripped from his parents when he was about to turn 4 years old…a trauma our country is currently inflicted on other children.

At 83 years old, he carries the emotional scars of his youth. As his children, we love him even more fiercely for them. It is a protective love, though, a reversal of the natural parent/child dynamic.  Watching my father’s quietness and fear taught me that a child never, ever gets over forcible separation from his parents. It is also what pains the shards of my heart chamber.

Yom Kippur is more than the Day of Remembrance, the day we take account of our souls and reconnect to those around us. It is also the day, may, many years ago, on which Moses came down from Mt. Moriah with the first set of tablets, and in his anger at the behavior of the Jewish people, smashed them, shattering them to pieces. Later, Moses again ascended Mt. Moriah and 40 days later came back down with the whole, complete Torah. Our sages teach that our two chambered hearts are like the two sets of tablets: one holding the whole, unbroken truth of Torah and the other carrying shards of the Ten Commandments.

This past February, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled across an account written by Joshua Rubin in a Facebook group, “Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead.” Mr. Rubin described children, aged thirteen to seventeen, seeking freedom and safety in the United States only to be concentrated in a prison-like setting in the largest teen detention center in the country. When I started reading Mr. Rubin’s narrative, something happened to the chambers of my heart.

I could not help my father. I cannot go back in time to a story before my birth and spare the 4 year old who would later raise me.  However, as I felt the tiny shards of fractured tablet splinter strongly against my heart chamber, I knew, I had to do what I could to help children now, children facing the same traumatic circumstances that, 80 years prior, shaped my dad’s psyche.

At the time I arrived, Homestead was the largest child detention facility for asylum seekers in the United States. And it was growing. Homestead would come to house 14,300 children, many of whom arrived in the United States with family.

When children come to the US with grandparents, cousins, older siblings, aunts or uncles, they are classified as “unaccompanied minors” because their parents are not with them. With this classification, the government can separate them from the family members with whom they traveled.  What happens next is harrowing.

After he was released from detention, an 8-year-old boy described, “…We sleep on a cement bench. There are two mats in the room, but the big kids sleep on the mats so we have to sleep on the cement bench.” Another 12 year old boy shared, “…Sometimes I wake up from hunger [in the middle of the night],…and I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.”

At the time I decided to go to Homestead, Florida, we did not yet know the horrific conditions in which children were kept. We knew only that children were in prison, many ripped from families, and were being held long after the legally allotted 20 days. We knew most children had sponsor families waiting for them. We knew there were tremendous, inventive and arbitrary hurdles sponsors had to go through before children were allowed out of detention.

I did not even know whom I was flying to meet. All I knew was that some guy was willing to stand day in, day out, in front of Homestead and share with the world what he witnessed. He had done the same thing at a similar detention center in Tornillo, Texas, an effort that shut it down. My husband and I talked through the different safety issues involved in flying to meet a complete stranger outside a federal detention center. We worried about the possibilities of arrest or what I would find in Mr. Rubin.

What I found were righteous Jews and gentiles. I found Martin Levy, an educated Jew and active member of his Reform synagogue. I found Melissa Bowen Rubin, a smart, creative woman with a gentle manner and wicked sense of humor. I found Josh Rubin, an earnest, prophetic voice for children unseen, caged, and mistreated. This group was joined by yet others, all of whom are fierce lovers of kindness. What lay ahead, we would face together.

Together, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder, crying out for these children. Together, we witnessed teenagers walking like chain gangs, absent only the actual chains for whenever the children marched from the dorm to the classroom, or from the cafeteria to the dorm, they marched in perfectly straight single-file lines.

Together, we asked why they did not seem to joke with each other, laugh, or test any boundaries. The staff responded that the center uses “positive discipline.” I am not a child psychologist. However, I have been around teenagers my entire life: as a teenager, as a professional, and as a mother. It is hard for me to imagine so many teenagers corralled in one place behaving like lambs, without being threatened by something. A fact later confirmed by Senator Jeff Merkley who spoke with children reporting that when they misbehave, they are threatened by staff.

Together, we read about incidents of staff-on-child sexual assaults. On the evening of my third day in front of Homestead, Representative Ted Deutch made public 4,500 complaints, in four years, of sexual abuse of immigrant children held at centers like Homestead. Some of the reports cited Homestead specifically.

Together, we heard a staff member whisper furtively, “What goes on inside there . . . horrible, horrible.” All staff members have to sign nondisclosure agreements. This did not stop some of the staff from giving us subtle thumbs-up signs or whispers of encouragement.

Together, we learned that Caliburn, the for-profit company making money off the jailing of these children, backed off its planned public IPO. Mr. Rubin was starting to generate so much publicity that it could have hurt Caliburn in going public

Together, we kept hydrated against the unrelenting heat and baking sun, even as the children we watched were left hatless because, according to staff, “the teens sweat too much” to be issued protection against the sun. The staff, however, is issued baseball caps to shield their eyes and cover their heads. After blogging about this, and persistently asking this question whenever press had the chance, Caliburn changed their policy and indeed now gives children baseball capsd.

Together, we watched the children’s frenzied attempts to make contact with us: throwing heart signs, jumping, waving, shouting, and dabbing at us. A group of boys even yelled at me when I once stopped paying attention for a few moments to check my phone.

Together, we answered locals who asked us what our pins meant or why we stood with signs. Many of them were shocked to learn this massive prison existed in their neighborhood without their knowing about it. Others knew family members or friends who left Homestead employment because they could not tolerate what they were asked to do and what they had to witness.

Together, we saw the minimal field time the girls, who comprised nearly half the detention population, were given compared to the boys.

And together, we asked the question and blogged the concern that would temporarily shut Homestead down, “What is the plan for Hurricanes? How, with hastily built temporary shelters, no more than tents with air conditioning, can the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services ensure the children’s safety in the event of a Hurricane?” After this concern became public, and as Hurricane season approached, Homestead quietly transferred out its entire child population. Suddenly, sponsor families who were stonewalled for months, became eligible to receive the very children with whom they declared asylum in the first place. Other children were transferred to detention centers in different states. To this day, we do not know how many children have been separated from their families, the actual number detained by our government, for how long, or where.

To be clear, Homestead did not close down. It sits empty waiting for a new shipment of children. This private, empty facility is costing taxpayers at least $72,000 a day.

And, together, standing outside Homestead with this collection of fierce lovers of kindness, I believed I could blunt the spiked edges of tablet shards we all carry. In the movie The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter asks Clarice near the end: “Well, Clarice . . . have the lambs stopped screaming?” The memory of hearing lambs scream during slaughter is what drives Clarice to try to save a missing teenager. Clarice believes if she can save this girl, the memory of the lambs’ screams will stop. The shards we carry are like the screech of the lambs. I thought that, perhaps, if I stood outside Homestead with my signs and shouts, the fragments would finally settle and still, the lambs would stop crying out. I was wrong.

Since my return from Homestead, FL, more and more reporting has come out about the conditions in which children are detained across the country. With each new article, each new interview, the shards in my heart chamber pierce anew. A 12-year-old boy explained during an interview with NBC that the room in which he and others were held was not large enough for them all to lie down, so they took turns sleeping. He said that there was not enough food for them all. The older boys decided to give their food to the younger ones because the younger boys would cry from hunger. When that happened, the 12-year-old went on, “they hit us when we cry, they get angry. We can keep from crying, but little ones can’t. So we give the food to them.”

How can we Jews hear these stories and not feel our shards rattling and shaking. How can we live with knowing this is happening in our country by our government RIGHT NOW. Over the summer, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared ICE detention centers to “concentration camps”. The Jewish community made more noise about her use of the term “concentration camps” than we have about the fact that children are being concentrated in horrific conditions, in camps, at this moment, by our own government, under our noses. Whether or not she had the right to use the term, how did we get so lost, how did we get so distracted, that we care more about the ownership of semantics than we do about what the fact that it is happening again? Children are being dehumanized in camps, by the thousands. The outcome may not be the same as the death camps, but the Jewish Community cannot tolerate the dehumanization of children, of anyone.

One child ripped from family, one child crammed in overcrowded conditions, one child forced to sleep standing up without adequate food or water…is one too many.

Whatever our belief about immigration policy, what I have described cannot be compatible with who we are as Americans. And as Jews, we especially cannot tolerate it.

Those fierce lovers of kindness I met outside Homestead are not tolerating it. Neither should you. Together, we do not have to.

Most of us are not able to fly to child detention centers to bear witness. But, together, there is so much we can do.

Together, we can let companies who finance, supply, and partner with detention centers know that we will not consume their products. We can continue educating our representatives and senators about the issue and let them know we will not stand for it.

Together, we can partner with local immigration organizations to help sponsor families prepare for the arrival of children. We can either volunteer for, or help fund, legal services trying to get children released before they turn 18. When a child turns 18 in a detention center, their birthday present is being shackled and carted off to an adult prison.

Together, we can try to enable an administration whose response to immigration is more reflective of the values on which this country was founded. The majority of you live in Ohio. Get your fellow residents registered to vote. Canvas for issues and candidates. If I could canvas in rural Wayne Country, Ohio in 2016, you can do it in Cuyahoga County in 2020.

Together, we can bring the issue of asylum seekers back to the forefront of American minds. Impeachment proceedings and narischkite from the White House continue to dominate mainstream news and crowd out the very real and horrendous assaults on human and civil rights. Do not let this country forget about the children it is caging and dehumanizing.

I do not really know if the sharp pains in my heart are actually from these magical shards gifted us by Moses’s temper. They are more likely a result of transgenerational trauma, the phenomenon of each generation passing its unresolved trauma to the generation after it. My own father was a migrant, forcibly separated from his parents at age four and shipped across an ocean at war to the safe harbor of New York City. I know that my dad’s story of waking up, crying, in the belly of a ship, only to fall silent as he saw a swell of other lonely children and realized there was no adult coming to comfort him, is much of what drove me to Florida. I also know many Jews, young and old, carry a very healthy dose of transgenerational trauma.

We are all carrying broken tablet shards. At this past Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Cincinnati, attorney Bryan Stevenson spoke to us of his criminal justice work. He does not know about the broken shards of the 10 Commandments. Yet, when he summarized why he fights for justice, he revealed, he has them as well, “I don’t do what I do because I have to. I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”

The fact is, we all are. We all have lambs to silence and brokenness to heal. Jews have brokenness because of how few people stood up to protect us. If we join people like Josh Rubin, though, maybe we can mitigate how broken others will become. Maybe, by trying to ease the pain of our own broken shards, we can help others keep theirs whole; we can prevent another entire generation from experiencing trauma.

Perhaps it is a good thing that the shards do not settle and still. Perhaps their cracks allow the Shechinah, God’s imminent presence, to dwell within our heart chamber. Perhaps the fragmented tablets are what drive Jews in such high percentages to fight for justice and right. If so, then may we carry them until the day when each of us, as the prophet Micah predicts,  “sits under [our] vine and under [our] fig tree, and no one will make [another] afraid.