Interviews

Prayer, Protest, and Immigration Justice: A Conversation

Welcome to our very first interview at Faith and Polity. We were lucky enough to sit down with Sophie Siegel-Warren, an immigration justice activist and volunteer digital coordinator with Never Again Action, a Jewish movement to end immigrant detention. We invite you into discussion with us, and with Sophie, on the role of religious activism in the immigration movement, and what theater has to teach us about religion and politics.

Maddie Ulanow: We’re so excited to talk to you today, and so excited to learn about Never Again Action. Do you think you could start by explaining to us what Never Again Action does?

Sophie Siegel-Warren: Never Again Action is a group of progressive Jews working to abolish ICE. We work against the detention of asylum seekers, of immigrants, and of undocumented people. We advocate for treating human beings with dignity and respect. A big part of the work is to collaborate and provide support for groups that are immigrant led. We’re also interested in changing the dialogue around immigrant detention so that it cannot become normalized.

Part of what I think makes Never Again Action have so much momentum is that it is very decentralized. There are guidelines, support, and structure that comes from a core team of organizers and the volunteers, all of which work to empower people on the ground in their communities to figure out what they need. 

MU: I know you were present at Never Again Action’s very first action in Elizabeth, NJ. Could you describe that to us?

SSW: That protest was the first time I had ever done faith based organizing. I had never gone to a protest alone before and showing up by myself was scary. Then I saw people in prayer shawls praying. I took part in a prayer circle before we started. I saw acts and language that were so familiar- it felt more like walking into a progressive synagogue than walking into something totally new. 

I had never been to a detention center before. It looked like a warehouse. You would have no access to [the detention center] if you didn’t know it was there. You would have no idea what it was if you didn’t know it was there. You would have no idea that there were people being detained inside a facility if you weren’t told. 

I also saw people getting arrested. The image of seeing a bunch of people in yarmulkes and prayer shawls getting zip-tied and put into paddy wagons was very upsetting. That is part of the strategy- to make the individual players involved in arresting people and enforcing this system take stock of what they are participating in. 

This was the first time I had ever done faith-based activism and I immediately connected with the language about both religion and politics. I have been a part of Never Action Action since then for that reason. 

MU: Why do you think that it is important that this action came from a Jewish organization, rather than any other type of immigrant justice organization? 

SSW: The minute that I started to read about the national argument over whether we can or should call immigrant detention centers “concentration camps”, I knew that Jewish activists had to get involved. The commandment to “never forget” is an inherited commitment that Jews have. Our community spent our entire upbringing telling our children and telling ourselves that we have an obligation to prevent government sanctioned violence for moments like this.

I think a lot about drawing parallels or making metaphor about what Jews have gone through and what people who are being persecuted right now are going through. I do not think that because I am Jewish I understand what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant in the United States or what it is like to be black in the United States. But, I do believe that the call to “never forget” and the call to continually hold ourselves and our governing bodies accountable to treating people with human dignity is deeply Jewish and is a responsibility of our people in particular. I understand that due to decades of assimilation, I am white, very well educated, I have a lot of people, and so putting my body in places where it can speak and be loud and be heard is a duty in this moment.

When we talk about saying “Never Forget”, I ask myself why is that a commandment? I don’t think that that commandment is to remember them for the sake of remembering them. I think that that commandment always has a second half, which is to prevent it from happening again. That is the job. That is what it means to be the survivors of a people that someone tried to wipe out. You carry a duty to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.

BF: I hear you using the language of commandment. When you think about your relationship to Judaism, is ‘commandment’ part of that relationship? Does that come from the Torah or does that come from somewhere else?

SSW: Actually, it feels like accountability more than commandment. This is the community that I am a part of, these are the people that raised me, these are the values that I believe make the world a more just and equitable place, and Judaism holds me accountable to that.

Forgetting is how history continues to repeat itself, and how cycles of violence are allowed to be cycles. We forget stories, we mis-tell them, we cover things up. I deeply believe as an activist that memory and storytelling are critical to fighting for actual justice. So, I think of “never forget” as a commandment from myself to myself. 

 When it comes to connecting politics and to policy, the Jewish structure that is most salient to me takes place on Yom Kippur. We go to services and everyone, together, lists the transgressions that they have taken a part of in the last year. Jews do this because there is a belief that if one person is able to do any of those transgressions, it is not their individual responsibility nor fault. It is the responsibility of the community and it is the fault of the community for having allowed them to make that mistake. You stand and say together this litany of things that you did wrong, because even if you don’t remember that time in the last twelve months that you did this, you are part of a system that allowed somebody else to do this.

I might not have punched someone – but I am complicit in this society that inflicts violence on black and brown bodies, and I hold that responsibility. This feeds into my understanding of what justice looks like, and how we talk about policing, resources, and taxes. 

BF: That makes a lot of sense in a Jewish context. How does that work in coalitions with immigrant rights groups that might not be Jewish? 

SSW: Another misconception about Jews in America is that Jews are all white and Ashkenazi and immigrant groups are all Christian and from central and south America. There is a lot of religious and ethnic diversity within both of those groups. We work often with organizers who are Jewish and who are immigrants, or who have family that are undocumented. There is a conversation about how to be an ally to our people, who are in both of these communities. 

Another piece of this is using our resources to defend immigrants. If people are doing fundraising for a bail fund, we are going to ask every synagogue in New York City to contribute. If there is a hunger strike at a detention center in Rhode Island that nobody knows about? We will activate so that people know about it. Never Again Action focuses on supporting the agendas that immigrant rights groups are working on, not on setting the agenda ourselves. It is our duty to make sure that this does not happen again and it is happening to immigrant communities right now. 

BF: Switching gears a little; I understand that when you’re not an activist, you’re a theater professional, and have done quite a bit of work in the theater and performance art space. Are there any connections between your political and religious identities and your theater identity? 

SSW: Religion and protests are both ritual and performance. I don’t say performance in a derogatory way; I say performance as movement. Theater comes from religious rites- from people gathering in a specific space, praying to specific deities, and participating in specific speeches, language, movement, vocalization.

It is the exact same thing as a protest. It has to be organized, it has to be cohesive, it has a message. Everybody knows where to be at what time. It has to be presentable. You have to know that what you are doing has a strategy to it. 

When I talked about how upsetting it was to see Jews getting zip-tied, people in full garb getting zip tied and put into a paddy wagon, that is part of the point. That is an upsetting image, it is shocking to people, it gets people paying attention. That is part of the performance. 

The same thing is true for Judaism. It is a ritual, it is a performance in that most beautiful way. Tradition is when you go to a certain place, you are in community with people, you experience something together, you share a collective experience, and you walk away feeling changed because of that collective experience.

BF: Thanks so much for your time, Sophie. 

Sophie Siegel-Warren is a digital coordinator at Never Again Action. She holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama, where she is currently pursuing her Doctorate.

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