As the social justice fellow for Temple Sholom, I have been a part of a congregation whose commitment to its community is felt throughout the city. So it was little surprise that I found myself sitting in the Clifton Mosque, surrounded by Jews, Muslims, Christians, and members of almost every other faith tradition in the city. In all, over 150 people were in attendance, together representing more than 30 congregations. We filled the multipurpose room in the basement of the mosque to capacity. There was barely anywhere left to sit.
We came together to discuss the sanctuary movement. Our goal was to find refuge within congregations for immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, and any other people who are in danger of deportation or persecution. At the end of the meeting, participants were encouraged to sign their congregations up to help in any way they could, from providing material or moral support to making their congregation a sanctuary congregation, ready to take in and protect refugees.
The history of the sanctuary movement has many ties to Cincinnati, a heritage proudly shared during the meeting. In our country and our city, we recognize the role the Underground Railroad played in bringing people to safety. The sanctuary movement surfaced again in Cincinnati in the 1980s as refugees from El Salvador sought safety in our community.
At the training, I watched Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp as she helped lead this large group of committed people along with other leaders and speakers from the Amos Project, a social justice coalition in Cincinnati. After brief introductions, a few speakers came to impress upon us the gravity of the situation. They offered personal accounts of both seeking and providing sanctuary. We heard about escaping persecution and horror in El Salvador and Damascus. Their stories were familiar: persecution by the government because of who they were or what they believed. Fortunately, the stories also contained accounts of compassionate, selfless people who helped them escape.
I also realized that these stories mirrored our own Jewish stories, but for once, we were not the ones recounting our experiences. I sat in a space and heard a story like that told by someone outside the Jewish community. It was amazing to hear stories that sounded like ours, that could have been ours but for small, yet crucial details. My stories involve people who look and talk like me, or places where there are few, if any, synagogues; their stories involved persecution, terror, and flight from governments that sought to do them harm. The stories also recounted heroism, selflessness, and compassion. That we can sit comfortably and support others affirms how far we have come. But it also reminds us how far we still have to go. We are still hearing stories like these, still having to protect and shelter one another. The story we once saw as ours alone is now fresh in other people’s minds. We are all aware now that this common narrative may emerge and become someone else’s story, or ours again, too.
I was proud to sit there, listening to the stories, taking inspiration from the efforts of others, and seeing how many people were willing to commit not just themselves but their entire communities to creating sanctuaries for others. I was inspired by seeing my rabbi there, leading and teaching. And I was proud to be doing something I rarely do: wearing my kippah, proudly identifying myself as a Jew, representing my community and honoring our values. I did not need to tell my story, I was already hearing it.
Benjamin Zober is a fourth-year rabbinical student and is the social justice fellow at Temple Sholom under the guidance of Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp.