There is no Other

This morning, I was proud to join my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, as President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, at the public announcement of the formation of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition. Together with First Unitarian Society, Advent Lutheran Church ELCA, Community of Hope United Church of Christ, and Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ, with support from First Congregational United Church of Christ, First Baptist Church, James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation  and Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, our faith communities have joined together to provide sanctuary to immigrants and refugees who are under threat of deportation due to, “immoral immigration policies that threaten families, instill fear in our communities and violate the most basic ethical standards of our faith traditions,” as so eloquently stated by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.

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When Kelly Crocker, Minister at the First Unitarian Society, with whom my synagogue shares space and thus joins us in offering sanctuary, gave her remarks, she offered a profound way of viewing the world.

There is no other, just a neighbor you haven’t met yet.

Her simple statement resonated with me as I stood behind her this morning. It is among many reasons why my synagogue joined this coalition and why we offer sanctuary in a public manner. We join together in order to build community, not destroy families and the communities in which they live.

Last week, the Dane Sanctuary Coalition wrote letters to local Mayors, the County Executive and law enforcement officials, to let them know that we are publicly offering sanctuary to immigrants and refugees under threat of deportation. We do so at some risk to ourselves and our faith communities. But we are willing to take that risk to help protect our vulnerable immigrant and refugee neighbors from oppression. After all, we are a nation of immigrants and virtually all of us are here because either we or one of our ancestors immigrated here.  We sincerely appreciate that Madison Police Chief Mike Koval responded by stating:

I am always appreciative when constituents step up to make Madison a more inclusive and accessible community for all.

In our congregation’s recent newsletter, which informed our community that our Board of Directors had voted to join the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, our Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman wrote:

As a Jewish community we are called to welcome the stranger and protect the oppressed. Out of a deep sense of social justice, we are responding to the urgent needs of Dane County’s immigrant communities, and we will stand with them in this act of solidarity.

Sanctuary can provide a deterrent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), thus giving the individual an opportunity to plead his or her case in court rather than being summarily deported. Providing sanctuary is a humanitarian act for an individual, as well as an opportunity to raise public awareness of deportations in our community. We are not hiding an individual; rather we are publicizing our action in the media and to ICE. This makes a powerful public statement that we will not stand idly by.

Offering sanctuary is a centuries old method which faith communities have offered to protect vulnerable people from oppression. I am thrilled that in my leadership role as President of my synagogue, we are now part of the growing New Sanctuary Movement which includes over 1,000 congregations nationwide offering sanctuary to immigrants and refugees under threat of deportation.

Providing sanctuary to people under threat of deportation will take a huge community effort, but I am confident that our faith communities will succeed in this effort and I look forward to the day when immigrants and refugees are welcomed in our nation and offering sanctuary is no longer necessary.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Mexican brother, Mexican son

I have previously written about my Mexican family and the efforts we make to stay connected despite thousands of miles between us. Recently, I had yet another wonderful opportunity to reconnect, this time in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico’s two largest cities, which are both vibrant and fascinating with a rich history. On this occasion, my cousin Miky’s daughter Natalia, was getting married. Since I consider Miky a brother, as we lived together in 1973-74 in Oak Park, Michigan, when we attended 9th grade together, despite having recently returned from Israel, we certainly did not want to miss Natalia’s wedding. In fact, my wife and I also flew my son in from Israel, where he is attending college, so he could attend the wedding. To further cement the family bonds, I convinced my brother and sister to bring their families to the wedding as well, as neither had been to Mexico to see our family there in a long time.

There are many reasons why I consider Miky as a brother. Not only did we live and go to school together for a year, but we share many attributes. We both work for ourselves and seek to make our own way in the world. In addition, we both prioritize family connections. We married the same year (1982) and both continue to have happy and fulfilling marriages as we approach our 35th anniversaries. As you can see below, my wife and many others also think that Miky and I look a lot like each other.

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Mi hermano Miky

Of course, the wedding was beautiful and so much joy was shared by those in attendance. In fact, at one point during the party, my wife turned to me and said,

“Mexican people are the nicest people I know.”

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Father/daughter dance: Miky & Natalia

While we could have returned home after the wedding, we had another important stop to make in Mexico. In 2008, Miky and his wife Alma asked my wife and I if they could send their son Miguel to live with us for a year and attend 8th grade in our local middle school. We were glad to do so and continue what is now a 3 generation tradition of having a Mexican family member live with one of our family members (Miky’s Aunt Nitchy lived with my mother for 2 years as teens). Now, Miguel is on the verge of finishing his undergraduate degree at the Panamerican University in Guadalajara and we wanted to see his life in Guadalajara.

It was well worth the extra time and effort to visit Miguel in Guadalajara. Not only did we enjoy Guadalajara, with side trips to Tequila (yes, that’s where they make it) and Tlaquepaque (a beautiful artisan town), but more importantly, we saw where and how Miguel lives and goes to school. We got to know his lovely and charming girlfriend Vanessa, and it warmed our hearts to see how he has grown into a truly fine young man with a bright future ahead of him.

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Miguel with his second mother, my wife Sheryl

On the last evening of our stay in Guadalajara, the breaking news popped up on our phones that the U.S. had bombed a Syrian air base, as we were going out to dinner with Miguel. Sheryl and I expressed our fears of how this bombing could potentially unravel into World War 3, if Russia and Iran reacted violently. Listening with a son’s concern, Miguel said, “you can always come to stay with us in Mexico where you will be safe.”

My wife and I were deeply touched by Miguel’s genuine offer in many ways. First, he truly understands that we are family in the deepest way. We will always be there for each other to protect each other. In addition, perhaps without intending to make a political statement, he made a very profound one. With all the anti-Mexican bias coming out of the White House, thinking about the possibility that we might actually be safer and better protected in Mexico was both ironic and heartwarming.

We will continue to maintain our strong family bonds with my Mexican family. After all, with a Mexican brother and a Mexican son, how could I do otherwise?

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

In Praise of Civil Rights Lawyers

Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, none of which are complimentary. Here’s a classic:

Q: What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer?
A: One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

Even Shakespeare famously penned,

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare gave this line to Dick the Butcher in Henry VI. In what could be a prescient prediction of our current times, Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king.

Although my elementary school teachers had me pegged to become a lawyer by the time I was in 5th grade, probably due to my argumentative nature, by high school, all the societal negativity around the legal profession sufficiently dissuaded me from pursuing a legal career. In fact, my intention behind my undergraduate degree in American history was to pursue a Ph.D. in history and become a history professor.

Before doing so, I took 3 years off after receiving my Bachelor’s degree to do some traveling and earn some money. By the middle of that 3rd year, it dawned on me that my advocacy skills were better suited to a career in the law, than a career in academia. More importantly, my decision to go to law school was predicated on a decision that the only kind of law I would practice would be true to my values: civil rights.

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President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Most of my law school classmates scoffed at my pursuit of a career as a civil rights lawyer, suggesting that I would never be able to pay my law school loans off. At some level, their skepticism was appropriate. Finding work as a civil rights lawyer is not easy and none of the various jobs I have held in my 31 years as a civil rights lawyer have paid well. However, I paid my law school loans off a long time ago, and despite some rough financial patches, overall, I have been able to keep my finances in the black.

Recently, I have taken a lot of pride in my choice of career. On a personal level, I can confidently say that I have never taken a case that I was not personally and ethically proud to take. On a professional level, I know that many of my cases have helped to enforce the civil rights of both my individual clients and many others who are impacted either by the class actions I have pursued or the precedents that my cases have set. Indeed, just yesterday, I successfully obtained a court order to reunite a loving mother with her son who had been wrongly taken from her a few months ago by the county.

But my pride in being a civil rights law goes far beyond my own personal practice. It extends to the entire field of civil rights law. We are living in a time when the President of the United States scoffs at civil rights and denigrates judges. The U.S. Senate has just confirmed the new Attorney General, who has made a career out of weakening or attacking civil rights, including:

  • voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act; and
  • voting for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

While it is certainly true that judges make mistakes, that is why we have Courts of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. The concept of judicial review has been the bedrock of our Constitutional system of checks and balances ever since Chief Justice John Marshall enshrined it as a bedrock principle in the 1803 decision of Marbury v. Madison.

But courts do not make decisions or protect civil rights if civil rights attorneys do not bring the cases before them. As I listened to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals historic oral argument in the State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, a few days ago, I took professional pride in the attorney for the State of Washington who was defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees and noted that the attorney defending the Executive Order banning entry of so many innocent people seemed like he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

I have learned the hard way that the path of a civil rights lawyer is not an easy one. The system is stacked against those who need civil rights protection the most and many judges and juries prefer to naively believe that we live in a discrimination free nation where civil rights do not need a vigorous defense. However, this uphill battle is exactly why the public at large should appreciate the work of civil rights attorneys, because you never know when it will be your rights that need a vigorous legal defense.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

Productive Refugees

Our President wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and exclude refugees from countries that he deems terror prone. He claims he is protecting American jobs and our security. Those claims simply do not stand up to any serious scrutiny.

Although refugees and immigrants come from all around the world, currently, the most contentious group of refugees come from Syria. Fortunately, there is good data which demonstrates how productive Syrian immigrants have been after arriving in the United States.

According to the Center for American Progress:

Syrian immigrants earn good wages, with high levels of educational attainment.

The median annual wage for Syrian immigrants in the United States is $52,000. That is well above the $36,000 median wage for immigrants overall and higher even than the $45,000 median wage for U.S.-born workers.

Syrian immigrants are in general very well-educated, with Syrian immigrant men especially likely to have not only a college degree but also an advanced degree such as a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree. Twenty-seven percent of Syrian immigrant men hold an advanced degree, while for other groups—men and women, U.S.-born people and immigrants—the range is between 10 percent and 13 percent.

Syrian immigrants have among the highest rates of business ownership.

Syrian immigrants have extremely high rates of business ownership. Immigrants are, in general, an entrepreneurial group: 4 percent of immigrants in the labor force are business owners, compared with 3 percent of U.S.-born people. But both groups are far outstripped by Syrian immigrants, among whom 11 percent are business owners—more than double the rate of immigrants overall and more than triple the rate of U.S. citizens by birth.

Syrian immigrants have thriving businesses. The median earnings of Syrian business owners are $72,000 per year. These businesses provide employment, create jobs, and help spur growth in the local economy.

The kinds of businesses that Syrian immigrants are most likely to own range from medical offices—the most prominent type of business and no doubt part of the reason for high earnings among Syrian business owners—to food services and automobile dealerships.

Syrians integrate into American society over time.

Syrians have high levels of English-speaking ability. Fifty-seven percent of Syrian immigrants who have been in the United States for more than 10 years report that they speak English at least “very well”—a higher rate than for immigrants overall, for whom the rate is 52 percent.

Homeownership rates among Syrian immigrants are similar to those of other immigrant groups, with the percentage almost doubling from 34 percent for those in the United States for 10 years or less to 67 percent for those here for more than 10 years. The home ownership rate for U.S. citizens by birth is 68 percent.

Syrian immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens at high rates. Among those who have been here for more than 20 years, 91 percent have become U.S. citizens. This is significantly higher than the 71 percent rate for immigrants overall.

My grandparents all immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe between the 2 World Wars when there was also a high degree of anti-immigrant sentiment. Most of my relatives who did not leave Europe before the Holocaust perished  in it. A few fled east to the Soviet Union.

Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I had an opportunity to provide direct assistance to immigrants who fled a repressive regime in Uzbekistan. Since both my wife and I were working when our son was born, we needed to arrange for child care. At that time, there had been a wave of Russian immigrants to the United States, including Madison, and my wife thought Jewish Social Services might know of a recent immigrant who would make a good in-home nanny for our son. Fortunately, they did and Flora became Josh’s nanny until he started kindergarten. Flora and her husband Leo (the former cultural minister of Uzbekistan who became the bread baker at Madison’s Whole Foods) became like family members to us. We attended their son’s wedding, and they attended our son’s Bar Mitzvah. About 3 years ago, they decided to retire and move to Florida where they live near Flora’s sister, who also fled Uzbekistan (their brother is still trapped there). We recently had a lovely reunion with them in Florida.

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Flora reunited with my son Josh, and wife Sheryl

Flora, Leo and their children (and now grandchildren) are all now productive American citizens and some of the finest people I know. My family’s life is better because of immigrants like Flora and Leo. America is a better country when we welcome immigrants. Suggestions from the current administration that we should restrict immigration are not only inhumane. They are also counter productive as America’s success story is the story of successful immigrants.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Tikkun Olam-Repair of the World

Every day we encounter problems that cry out for Tikkun Olama Jewish concept that means repair of the world. As a founding member and President of my synagogue,  Shaarei Shamayim, who has dedicated my professional career towards Tikkun Olam, congregants regularly ask me for advice on what they can do to help repair the world. Such requests have increased significantly since the last election.

Globe with Bandaid/Plaster Over U.S.A/North America

Fortunately, my synagogue has a spiritual leader, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, who is also dedicated to Tikkun Olam, and our congregation gladly supports her efforts. However, she knows that it is not enough for her to speak out or take action on issues by herself. Members of our congregation and our community must do so as well, if genuine repair of the world is to occur.

Shortly after the election, we were privileged to have one of our members, Ruth Conniff, the editor of the Progressive magazine, talk to our members about the election results. Her talk inspired many of our congregants to look for ways to get directly involved in Tikkun Olam. Rabbi Laurie convened a number of meetings to determine how best to facilitate the desire of so many members to do good work in our community. I am very pleased to report that we now have now formed 4 projects available to our members:

  • Friends of the State Street Family-providing food and other assistance to people who are homeless in our community.
  • Circles of Support-working with Madison Urban Ministry to provide support to individuals leaving the prison system and returning to our community. I am joining other members of our congregation to participate in this project.
  • Jewish Social Services Resettling Refugees Project-through which our members will help provide assistance to 50 new refugees to our community.
  • Protecting Vulnerable Communities – Reflection, Advocacy, and Action-a group that will look for ways to protect vulnerable communities that may come under attack in the coming days, weeks and years.

For some, it may be difficult to take time out of their busy lives to get directly involved in such projects. Many have realized that it is also important to provide financial support to organizations who are doing good work. I have provided links to the groups our Congregation is working directly with who can certainly use financial support. Recently, I responded to a congregant who was looking for Jewish groups who were taking on the important task of Tikkun Olam as she wanted guidance to provide financial support to them. While there are many such groups, in addition to the groups mentioned above, I also informed her about the following laudable organizations:

  • T’ruah-the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
  • Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS)-HIAS works around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. For more than 130 years, HIAS has been helping refugees rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.
  • American Jewish World Service-a community of Jewish global citizens committed to repairing the world.
  • New Israel Fund-Invests in hundreds of Israeli organizations whose work changes the equation on civil rights, on religious freedom, and on social justice. Also organizes, advocates, trains, and convenes to build a community committed to a vision of a democratic, just, and equal Israel.

Of course there are many more projects and organizations which provide ways in which to engage in Tikkun Olam and no one can engage in all of them. So, pick one or more if you are able, and do your part to repair the world. In helping others, you will feel better for doing so.

Although there is much to fear about the unsettled state of our world, I am inspired on a daily basis by the amount of energy that is going into all the work needed to make our world a better place despite the ominous forebodings that surround us. Together, we will repair this world.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Refugee Stories: Giving & Receiving

In the past week, I have enjoyed 2 recent interactions with refugees who immigrated to Madison that reminded me how important it is to assist new refugees and how eager they are to give back to their host country.

In the first situation, I was contacted by my old friend Andy Heidt, a former City of Madison Alder, who now runs the Bayview Foundation. As set forth on its website:

The Bayview Foundation’s guiding purpose is to facilitate families as they meet their needs, realize their dreams and make contributions to the community. Together, Bayview Foundation and Bayview Townhouse residents created a people proven model of successful, dynamic cooperation that works. The mission of Bayview Foundation is to provide housing, human service, arts appreciation and cultural awareness.

Andy put out a call seeking a lawyer to provide pro bono assistance for a Hmong immigrant mother and daughter because the daughter’s citizenship papers mistakenly listed her year of birth 4 years early which was causing problems with age related issues such as school enrollment. Working with a translator, I drafted an affidavit for her mother to sign in order to verify her daughter’s actual date of birth. After she signed the affidavit and expressed her thanks to me, Andy proceeded to give me a tour of Bayview’s affordable housing where many Hmong immigrants live. I am glad to see that Andy is continuing the good work he has done for many years and was pleased to help out one of his residents in my own small way.

A few days later, my wife and I were on the receiving end of assistance from a Laotian refugee who has become our friend.  Thongpone owns Sala Thaia lovely local restaurant that my wife and I have enjoyed eating at for many years. Mutual friends live just a few doors down from the restaurant and introduced us to Thongpone a few years ago. When Thongpone heard from our friend that my wife was home recuperating from a recent surgery, she volunteered to bring over some Laotian & Thai comfort food for lunch. Her gracious generosity was greatly appreciated by both my wife and I. As we sat together eating her delicious food, we marveled as she shared the story  of her amazing journey from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand which led to her eventually becoming a successful and generous restauranteur, and now our friend, in Madison.

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As the Vietnam war was winding down, Thongpone fled an unstable Laos and sought refuge in a Thai refugee camp where life was very difficult. When she was eventually approved to immigrate to the United States, the original plan was to place her in Montana, where she knew no one. Fortunately, however, while in the refugee camp, she had met the owner of another lovely Madison restaurant, Lao Laan-Xangwho agreed to sponsor her in Madison.

That’s what refugees do. They help each other. That’s what good people do. We help each other. Our nation, our community, our neighborhoods are all made great when we help each other. I was fortunate to be on both the giving and receiving end in the past week and I look forward to many more opportunities in the future to give and receive both to and from former, current and future refugees, whom I welcome into my life. Together, we are stronger.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

My Mexican Family: a Legacy of Diaspora Immigration

Like many Jewish Americans, much of my family fled Europe between the two World Wars in order to escape the oppression they faced in Central Europe.  One of my grandmother’s brothers emigrated from Belarus to Moscow.  Many fled to the United States.  However, those that were unable to enter the United States due to restrictive immigration laws, ended up in Mexico (on my mother’s side) and Uruguay and Argentina (on my father’s side).  Those that did not flee Central Europe perished in the Holocaust.

My Mexican family, the Tachnas, eventually settled in Los Mochis and became farmers in the rich agricultural land of the El Fuerte valley.  Seeking to stay connected to their American family, they sent their daughter Nitschi, to live with my mother’s family in Detroit for 2 years in the 1940s to learn English and keep the family connection alive.  A few years later, in the 1950s, my mother’s family made the long difficult drive from Detroit to Mexico City to attend Nitschi’s wedding to Simon.

I first met my Mexican cousins in 1971, when my family travelled to Mexico City to attend Nitschi & Simon’s daughter Susy’s wedding.  The Los Mochis branch of my Mexican family also travelled there and my eyes were opened to my beautiful Mexican family and the legacy of diaspora immigration.  I have many fond memories of that trip, which was by far the biggest trip my family ever took.

A few years later, my cousin Miky came to live with my family in Detroit and attend 9th grade with me to keep that family connection alive and to learn English.  Our house was small, but we crammed three teenage boys into one bedroom who became like brothers during that year.  Ironically, as this recent picture shows, we even look like brothers.

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I made my first trip to Los Mochis on my own in 1981 and have returned to this loving part of my family many times. In 2007, Miky and his wife Alma (of partial Japanese descent) sent their son, Miguel to live with us and attend 8th grade to connect the next generation of our family and so Miguel could learn English.  Miguel is now our second son and like a brother to our own son, Josh.

Miky & Alma’s daughter, and Miguel’s older sister, Alina got married to Mike Eng (of partial Chinese descent) this past Saturday, and my wife Sheryl, son Josh and I made the long trip to Los Mochis, to celebrate.  Joining the celebration were other cousins from Mexico City, Monterrey (Mexico), California and Israel, making this a true diaspora reunion of the Tachna family. Image

As our nation, and indeed much of the world, continues to struggle with immigration laws, my own family’s immigration story is framed by the legacy of restrictive American immigration laws.  Though we have succeeded in working hard to keep our family together despite the great distances, many family members have been lost to the winds of history. My first cousin Robert Tachna, has done significant research in trying to piece the Tachna family genealogy together on a web site.

Where our family’s future will go is up to each member of our family.  I know that I will continue to maintain the close ties that I have worked so hard to forge over the past 43 years of my life.  I look forward to the next opportunity to see my Mexican family, perhaps at the next wedding celebration, as this is yet one more way that I build community through family.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.