Last Month I Drove to Tornillo, Texas

I wanted to be sure that I could look my children in the eye 10, 20, 30 years from now and say that I did something, that I showed up.

File Under: Jewish, Memoir

Tornillo is about 45 minutes outside of El Paso, and I live in Ann Arbor, MI. It was a long drive. Tornillo is a small border town that also serves as a port of entry to and from Mexico, at least that what it was before this summer. It still is these things, but now it also houses children, ages 13-17, who are undocumented and unaccompanied by a custodial parent. When I first read about Tornillo, there were about 1,800 kids there; today there are likely close to 3,000 (since this AP report, more busses full of kids have rolled in). To put that number in perspective, only one federal prison is larger than the tent prison holding children in the Texas desert.

I drove to Texas because it was a way to focus local communities on what was happening in our backyard. Along the three-day drive, we stopped in cities and held rallies, raising awareness of Tornillo and making sure that this country doesn’t forget about family separation. Just because there aren’t pictures of babies being ripped from their mothers’ arms and recordings of crying children being shown in the press today, doesn’t mean that family separation is over. It isn’t, and Tornillo is proof of that.

Rabbi Whinston in TornilloNearly 200 people, coming from 41 different locals and 54 different organizations or congregations from across the United States, came together on November 15, 2018. We came to raise our voices about the abuses happening to undocumented children here in America, and we raised our voices to make sure that America doesn’t forget about these kids even though our government would rather that is precisely what we do — forget. The most important thing we can remember as we continue this struggle to welcome the stranger, to care for the stranger, is that this is all happening in our name. It doesn’t matter if we voted for Donald Trump or not, children are being kept from family members in our name.

I went to Texas because I actually believe the things I teach as a rabbi. Things like: Be kind to the stranger. If I am not for myself who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. I was once a part of a great exodus as well. Never again. And so much more. I came to the point that I didn’t think I could stand in front of my congregation and talk about what matters most to Judaism if I wasn’t willing to take a stand and show up for these children, if I wasn’t prepared to cry out, “Not in my name!”

I also went to Texas for my three children. Although it was hard to be away from my wife and kids for a week, I don’t ever want them to forget that I left for that week. Many of us ask our parents where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, how they dealt with the Vietnam draft, or what they did during the civil rights era. Our kids are going to ask us two questions: Where were you during 9/11? and What you do during this current tumultuous period of American history? I wanted to be sure that I could look my children in the eye 10, 20, 30 years from now and say that I did something, that I showed up. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone needs to hop in their cars and drive 1,500 miles or jump on a plane and head to Washington, DC, but we are not living in normal times, and I believe we are all going to have to answer these questions one day. What did we do? When did we show up? Where did we show up?

What will you say to your kids?

Photo Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre

Rabbi Josh Whinston

Rabbi Josh Whinston is the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.