One Congregation's Lessons Learned from an Immigration Shabbat

Wendy Braitman, PICO Clergy Organizing Team, Leader at IKAR

Immigration, Shabbat and Phone Banking

Sharing stories is at the core of how we personalize the impact of our broken immigration system, and an Immigration Shabbat is an ideal outlet for this. The elements that worked for us at IKAR were having the Rabbi frame the conversation, followed by well-crafted compelling testimonies (including one from a member of our Jewish community), then finishing up with a direct ask to the congregation. Our Rabbi, Sharon Brous’ incisive Torah study helped punctuate the themes of the campaign. Inviting members of immigrant congregations to pray alongside us and share a meal deepened our connections to one another and the issue. Following up a few days later with a phone bank was the perfect way to build and strengthen relationships within our community, and inspire people to get invested in the campaign.

Reaching Out to Immigrant Congregations

After the 2012 election, and remerging hope for an immigration reform bill, IKAR became part of PICO’s Campaign for Citizenship. Through our prior involvement in immigrant rights with our local federation, LA Voice, we’d organized with Latino congregations in Los Angeles and asked them to share their stories with our community for Passover and a series of IKAR House Parties. This made it easier to gather testimonies for our recent immigration Shabbat. We also invited members of these congregations to attend our Immigration Shabbat to pray with us.

Importance of Compelling Testimony

We knew from experience how transformative it is for our congregation to hear stories of people directly impacted by the immigration system. But we’ve also learned (sometimes the hard way) that testimony has to be well crafted to have the most impact. This involves preparing in advance to make sure the person giving their testimony has a strong narrative, which includes a moral dilemma, a transformational arc, and ends with a direct ask. For our Immigration Shabbat 2013, we invited an inspirational lay leader from a Catholic Church with whom we’d previously worked on a local campaign. She was more comfortable speaking in Spanish, so we transcribed her testimony ahead of time, and a bilingual congregant from IKAR stood beside her to translate. It was very powerful.

Adding a Testimonial from Our Jewish Congregation

One of the lay leaders at IKAR, who has been involved in our immigration campaigns, recently became a citizen herself, with a relevant story to tell. After the Torah reading, and a brief introduction and framing by Rabbi Ronit Tsadok, this IKAR leader shared her moving testimony. Having someone from inside our Jewish community with a personal experience of the broken immigration system lead off the Immigration Shabbat was a vital bridge to the rest of the service.

Rabbi’s Torah Study

Rabbi Sharon Brous has been a leading voice for immigration reform, alongside our Lay Leaders, and she is powerful speaker on the subject (as well as on just about everything else!) Her Torah study for our Immigration Shabbat, which included direct participation from the congregation, expertly weaved in the themes of the campaign and why Jews should be compelled to work on immigration reform.

Call to Action

For our Immigration Shabbat, we asked our community to call Senators Boxer and Feinstein (within the next week) to champion the immigration reform bill. We had prepared handouts with a sample script to use when calling Boxer and Feinstein along with the Senators’ phone numbers, which we distributed to all IKAR members.

Schmoozing Over Lunch

With members of immigrant congregations in attendance at our Shabbat, we were able to continue the conversation about the importance of the immigration reform bill in a more intimate way during lunch.

Phone Bank with Pizza and Beer

Two days after Immigration Shabbat, we’d arranged a phone bank (from 7-9PM), which was attended by about 12 members of IKAR. It was at a member’s house, we provided pizza (and beer), and a brief training, during which we all shared why immigration reform was personally important to us. For this phone bank, we called other members of IKAR, to make sure they got in touch with Senators Feinstein and Boxer. We had prepared lists with all members’ names and phone numbers, and divvyed up the list. We’d also prepared a script as a guide to use when calling members. The next day, everyone at the phone bank sent follow up emails to the IKAR members on their list, to remind them to reach out to Feinstein and Boxer.



IKAR’s background with Immigration Reform: In 2008, IKAR launched a social justice initiative called Minyan Tzedek. Under the guidance of LA Voice, a federation in the PICO network, we began a listening campaign for our congregation. When Obama got elected alongside a Democratic House and Senate, and with that, the hope of reform, one of the first campaigns for our fledging group became immigration legislation. As the electoral winds shifted against this, we segued to work on local issues, and helped change a policy in Los Angeles, that is saving immigrant families more than a million dollars a year. We also lobbied on behalf of a related state bill, which was signed by Governor Brown on Yom Kippur in 2011. June 1, 2013 was our third Immigration Shabbat.