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At the end of March this year, I joined with 15 of my students for six days of living and learning with the Cristo Rey Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas – an organization that runs the U.S.-Mexico Border Immersion Experience. We attended arraignment and deportation proceedings at a U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, met with lawyers from the ACLU Center of Border Rights and Texas Civil Rights Project, and even crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico, to gain a better perspective on life south of the border. Perhaps most notably, we heard the testimony of many immigrants, living fearfully in the shadows of our country’s broken immigration system.
Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, where I am the director of youth programs, has had a strong history of social justice trips for high school students under the leadership of Rabbi Andrea London. This trip, however, was a new program that I created, rooted in my passion and professional experience.
I majored in Spanish and Latin American studies in college, with a thesis focused on the significance of border art on the walls between Mexico and the U.S. After graduating, I worked as a community organizer with Latino communities in Wisconsin during the big push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the spring of 2013, before arriving at Beth Emet in the summer of 2014. My mentors and students at our congregation helped me discover the opportunity to capitalize on my expertise by organizing a migration-focused trip. But, to create something new was a risk, and I questioned: would students sign up for the trip? Would they feel engaged by a “content-heavy” curriculum? Would my enthusiasm for immigration activism be enough to spark interest in the community and sustain the initiative through the year?
Ultimately, timing, trust and partnership ensured the community buy-in we needed to make the trip a reality. I let the idea simmer and waited until my third year at Beth Emet to propose such a large undertaking, since in that time, I had acquired enough confidence in my relationships in the community and the institutional support behind the trip to take on the challenge. I started discussing the program with students casually last spring, and “Fronteras,” or “borders” in Spanish, officially launched at a family barbeque in August of 2016. Together with my supervisor, Marci Dickman, we designed a year-long curriculum that wove together the history of Jewish migration and diaspora with today’s immigration issues. The class met monthly, and our discussions were intended to prepare our teen participants for a journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. There were 19 students in the class, and ultimately, 15 students who went on the trip, which was expanded to include the senior Confirmation class.
We also had several parent meetings throughout the year, which helped generate the excitement and support that we needed to fund the trip. All students were required to reach out to their personal networks for donations and were provided guidelines on doing so. I assembled a team of parents to push forward fundraising efforts, help coordinate our Facebook page, and plan a silent auction where our teens offered their services in babysitting and tutoring. Community members purchased their time with money that went towards our program. By working with our dedicated group of teens and parents, we raised over $25,000 to pay for the trip.
At the end of March this year, we went on our long-awaited trip. The trip left a strong impact on our entire group, and we created the Fronteras blog to easily share our reflections with the synagogue community. The Fronteras curriculum and trip were unique, in part, because of the strong Jewish connection they presented – from Abraham to the Exodus, the Crusades to the Inquisition, the Holocaust to the founding of Israel – immigration is in the DNA of the Jewish people. Through examining our own history and connecting it to current events, we sparked genuine empathy and increased understanding in our students for the challenges that immigrants face today. Using my passion as the motivation for creating this unique experience proved to be worth the risk.
After returning to Beth Emet, the students and I have been deeply motivated to share knowledge and mobilize the community to defend the rights of immigrants. We will be hosting an immigration community action on Sunday, May 21, where immigration activists and clergy leaders will explore concrete ways for Beth Emet to make a difference, in ways such as joining the Sanctuary movement, a coalition of over 800 faith communities standing up to protect immigrants against deportation. Our student participants will also be there to share details about our recent trip. I hope to carry this momentum into next year and continue working with teens and local organizations to make an impact in our community.
Abigail (Abby) Backer is the Director of Youth Programs at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, overseeing both formal and informal educational experiences for youth. Abby brings experience in faith-based community organizing, social justice work, activism, and formal synagogue education. She graduated from Barnard College of Colombia University in New York, where she majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies. There she was also involved with student organizations for justice and peace, including Rabbis for Human Rights and JStreetU. After graduating, Abby worked as a community organizer in Wisconsin with WISDOM and the Racine Interfaith Coalition, focusing her efforts on the nationwide push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Abby was raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin where she attended Beth Hillel Temple and taught Hebrew and Religious School for many years. She was also a leader in her Temple Youth Group and on the Northern Regional Board of NFTY. In her spare time, she volunteers as a Spanish Interpreter at Community Health, spends time with her family in Wisconsin, and loves taking long walks with her dogs, Max and Luna, and her husband, Zak.