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Channeling Purim’s Esther, Jewish women fast for immigration reform

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 13, 2014 | 12:04 pm

'Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman', oil on canvas painting by Jan Steen, c. 1668

'Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman', oil on canvas painting by Jan Steen, c. 1668

While many devout Jews across the United States and elsewhere observed the pre-Purim tradition of fasting on Thursday, March 13, more than 200 Jewish women and men are going without food today for a different cause: immigration reform.

This year, members and supporters of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) have recast the Fast of Esther, a minor fast day named for the Purim story’s heroine, as part of a month-long campaign to urge the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.

The “Fast for Families,” a nationwide campaign that began on March 8 and will culminate with an event in Washington, D.C., on April 9, is being led by a coalition of faith groups, labor unions and other organizations pushing for immigration reform legislation. While the broader campaign mentions Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez as models for their current action -- all three men fasted to draw attention to their causes – NCJW is looking to Esther for inspiration.

“We hope to draw on Queen Esther’s courage as we fast to call attention to the importance of just, humane, and comprehensive immigration reform that is sensitive to the needs of women, children, and families,” NCJW CEO Nancy K. Kaufman said in a statement.

For the estimated 11 million immigrants believed to be living in the U.S. without legal status, 2013 saw the Senate pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship. But any hope for immigration reform in 2014 would require that bill to be taken up by the House, which has not yet happened.

Indeed, House Republicans passed a bill on March 12 that was an implicit rejection of President Obama’s 2012 executive action that offers immigrants brought to the US as very young children – the so-called “Dreamers” – the chance to remain in the country and seek employment, despite not having legalized status.

Despite what appear to be long odds, NCJW and other cosponsors of the Fast for Families are trying to draw attention to the need for immigration reform. That includes the 18 people in Los Angeles who signed up for NCJW’s fast on March 13.

“I usually only fast once a year, and that’s for Yom Kippur,” Maya Paley, director of legislative and community engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles, said. “I felt like this was an important reason for me to join in and fast, because I feel really saddened by the fact that immigration reform hasn’t moved forward in our Congress.”

NCJW, as a progressive organization that focuses on improving the quality of life for women, children and families, sees the failure to pass immigration reform as affecting women in uniquely challenging ways. Paley used to work with teenage girls in South and East Los Angeles, including some whose parents are living here illegally, or who are themselves illegal immigrants. Having helped many of these young women gain admission to two- and four-year colleges, Paley watched with dismay as their legal status threw up roadblocks that prevented many from enrolling in those schools.

Paley recalled taking some of the teens to immigration lawyers and student-run legal clinics, which ultimately proved largely unhelpful.

“’Just hope for the DREAM Act, or marry someone,’” the advisers told Paley’s students. 

“These are 17- and 18-year-old girls, and the lawyers are advising them, under the table, to do that,” Paley said.

Jewish Americans, Paley said, should be supportive of immigration reform – even if they haven’t met any of the millions of people whose lives and families are negatively impacted by their being here illegally. 

“All of us came as immigrants at one point, but most of us are more recent ,” Paley said. “It’s very close to home for us.” 

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