The group – made up of eight girls, seven boys, and four chaperones from Beth Emet, including Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabb;, Abigail Backer, Director of Youth Programming; and Bekki Kaplan, Executive Director.  Photo from Beth Emet

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Several weeks ago, 15 high school students from Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston flew to El Paso, Texas, to take part in the Border Immersion Experience run by the local Cristo Rey Lutheran Church. Fourteen months in the planning, the trip was the capstone to a year spent studying the interconnectedness of the Jewish Diaspora and migration, assimilation trends, and current immigration issues.

While on the borderland, the teens met with a range of people who work on immigration issues, including agents from the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol and lawyers who work for the ACLU Center for Border Rights and the Texas Civil Rights Project. They observed arraignment and sentencing hearings at the U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, N.M., and learned about the detention centers where undocumented immigrants are sometimes kept after being apprehended by law enforcement.

The group – made up of eight girls, seven boys, and four chaperones from Beth Emet, including Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabbi;, Abigail Backer, Director of Youth Programming; and Bekki Kaplan, Executive Director – cooked and ate meals together with their hosts, did arts and crafts projects with the children in the after-school program, and slept on bunk beds and air mattresses in the same building with those seeking asylum.

During one encounter, the teens shared a meal and prayed with and heard stories from a father and son who had just arrived at Cristo Rey. Later that same day, Pastor Rose Mary informed them that the two men had unwittingly signed their own deportation orders at the Detention Center and were already in the process of being sent back to Guatemala. It was a somber and heart-wrenching moment for everyone, to the participants say.

Another experience included a planned trip across the border to Juarez, Mexico, during which the group paid a toll in El Paso and crossed over the bridge to Juarez. They toured a community center and medical clinic in the Anapara neighborhood, viewed the Mexican side of one of three existing border fences, and shopped in the Juarez markets. When it came time to return to El Paso, however, the border crossing took more than an hour. Everyone in the Beth Emet group, each holding an American passport, was thoroughly questioned by the Border Patrol, and some provisions – apples from Texas, for one – were confiscated. This stood in startling contrast to the ease of crossing into Mexico earlier in the day.

The trip’s effects on the students and adults were eye-opening, emotional, and searing. After visiting the area, the students realized no amount of studying immigration during the academic year had prepared them for watching events take place “live,” affecting people they had come to know and admire. Most startlingly, perhaps, were the firsthand accounts told by the immigrants of the horrors of furtive travel, discrimination, and living fearfully in the shadows.

In one excerpt, quoted from a blog post about the trip, Noah Roth writes:

“The pastor from El Salvador told us his story: how the gangs had threatened to rape his 15-year-old daughter; how they had tried to recruit his son; how the coyotes [English form of the Spanish word “coyotajes” or smuggler] tried to make him have sex with a prostitute as punishment for stopping them from raping the women they were smuggling; how Border Patrol kept him and his son in a room they called ‘the freezer,’ a room with the air conditioning turned all the way up in which they were given only one meal and one bottle of water to share per day. If he wanted to use the bathroom, he had to wait for his one opportunity to do so per day. The fear faded from his eyes when we prayed with him; for him and his son to be granted safe passage.”

The group is still processing the experiences from its trip, which felt especially poignant during Passover. Participants saw the parallels to biblical stories about slavery and oppression faced by the Jews in Egypt, and how Moses led them on a journey through the desert to freedom in the Promised Land. The students, who are from Evanston, Skokie and Wilmette, worked together throughout the year to raise more than half of the funds necessary for the trip so that each person who wanted to attend would be able to do so.

Throughout the past year the teens have been studying Jewish texts on welcoming the stranger, exile, and immigration, and discussing current events relating to the global refugee crises and border walls, all in preparation for the trip to El Paso. The innovative curriculum was designed by Ms. Backer, who 14 months ago decided to build a course of study that wove together topics including the history of Jewish Diaspora, migration, assimilation, and race.

A fluent Spanish speaker, Ms. Backer majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Barnard College and began working at Beth Emet in July 2014. Prior to her work with Beth Emet youth, she worked as a community organizer in Racine, Wis., for a faith-based organizing group called WISDOM. There, Ms. Backer worked with three Latino parishes, and in the spring of 2013 organized a statewide push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Rabbi London is well known nationally for her leadership on race relations, social justice activism, and creating local dialogues between Chicago-area Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Rabbi London has led social action trips before, including two trips to the Gulf Coast in areas devastated by hurricanes, where Beth Emet congregants helped repair homes and community centers. In April 2013, she led a joint trip called Sankofa (a West African word meaning “go back and get it”) with teens from both Beth Emet and Evanston’s Second Baptist Church to sites significant to the civil rights movement throughout the southern United States.

The Border Immersion Experience is the brainchild of Pastor Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán, Senior Pastor and Executive Director of the Border Immersion Program at Cristo Rey Church in El Paso. By designing as a kind of “reverse mission trip,” Pastor Rose Mary is sure that her guests will come away with new knowledge based on the activities planned and the people they meet. Previous groups have come from colleges and churches in many states across the country; Beth Emet was the Border Immersion Program’s first synagogue group.

The trip has certainly changed the teens in ways they do not yet fully understand. Many reported that they have a much deeper awareness of what it means to be a “sanctuary city” based on what they have seen, and have asked – now that Evanston and Chicago are sanctuary cities – will Wilmette and Skokie follow?

One observation by many participants concerns the existing immigration system, which many believe to be broken: because there are few legal opportunities for the “average” person from Mexico, South or Central America to enter the United States. Those opportunities that do exist often require a level of financial commitment beyond the reach of the millions fleeing poverty and violence. The border fences may deter some illegal immigration, but the horrors that people are fleeing are so great that they are willing to take tremendous risks for the chance of a better life. Many of the students wondered whether a compassionate and practical solution was out of reach in this political climate.

The teens came away motivated to share their experiences at the borderlands with their communities. Pastor Rose Mary urged them to use their citizenship, their education, and their talents to tell others about what they have learned and observed.

The students are planning a community action event at Beth Emet, 1224 Dempster St., on May 21 at 2 p.m. to share the stories of the people they met during their life-changing border immersion experience. The event will be held outside, weather permitting.