Judy Peterson| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article
The sanctuary building at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos serves many purposes; it’s where weekly services and special events such as bar mitzvahs are held. Now, the building also houses a sanctuary apartment, where an individual or a parent with one child can stay when in danger of being deported.
“Once they’re here they’re safe, but if they leave they could be apprehended,” Shir Hadash congregant Debbie Coutant said. “ICE has something called sensitive locations—synagogues, churches, healthcare facilities and schools—and they won’t go into any sensitive locations.”
The Saratoga resident said most Shir Hadash congregants are from Los Gatos, Saratoga and San Jose’s Almaden Valley, and are helping those in all areas.
The project started about nine months ago, Coutant said, when synagogue members began hearing stories about people being deported without due process. So, members of the Shir Hadash Organizing Committee began working with local immigration attorneys and People Acting in Community Together to find the right refugee to house at the synagogue.
“This will be a refugee whose life would be endangered if he or she were deported,” Coutant said. “It could be a political refugee or someone suffering from extreme family abuse. It could even be a politically outspoken woman or someone whose sexual orientation doesn’t follow the social norms of their home country.”
Coutant said the synagogue’s sanctuary movement is rooted in history.
“The Jewish people have a unique history of being persecuted, as well as a tradition in our holy text, ‘knowing the stranger,’ because we were once strangers,” Coutant said. “All of our texts talk about fairness, so it’s in our DNA to help when we see people being treated unfairly. We have a chance to turn around and repay the good that was done for us, particularly the righteous gentiles during World War II.”
Another important Jewish value is the sanctity of life, Coutant said.
There was a lot of discussion among the congregation before the decision was made to move ahead with the sanctuary. Some people were concerned the synagogue might be breaking the law, but that’s apparently not the case.
“We’re helping them navigate the system from a safe place,” she said. “We have volunteers lined up to teach them English, if need be, or a skill they might want to learn. We’ll bring them food, and do their laundry and shopping.”
The refugee will be sleeping on a futon in the sanctuary’s library. A bathroom has been installed across the hall with an adjacent closet available for storing clothes and other items.
The only thing the synagogue asks is that their guest respect the boundaries of the kosher kitchen that they’ll be allowed to use.
“We hope to eat with them and build a relationship, so they don’t feel lonely,” Coutant said. “We don’t know how long they’ll be here; it could be a month or a year.”
This isn’t the first time Shir Hadash has stepped forward to help refugees in crisis. They’re currently working with two women from Ethiopia and Guatemala who don’t have anywhere to live. The women are staying temporarily with Shir Hadash members or friends of members.
“We’re taking them to English as a Second Language classes and medical appointments,” Coutant said. “One of the woman was in danger of losing her sight, so the congregation arranged for her to have surgery and saved her eyesight. The other woman got a job at a restaurant in town and is extremely happy. Both women fled their countries because they were beaten and raped, and one was mutilated.”