by Lily Lebwohl
The Leffell School hosted parent/alumni parent Rabbi Aaron Brusso as part of Friday Special Programming on April 23 to talk about his experiences with the United States immigration process.
Brusso, senior rabbi at Bet Torah synagogue in Mount Kisco, N.Y., became deeply involved in the immigration system when beloved custodian Armando Rojas was deported to Mexico. The Bet Torah community decided to do everything it could to reunite Rojas with his family, his wife and two sons.
“Armando, our custodian who had lived in the country for 30 years and had worked in our synagogue for 20 years, was suddenly deported back to Mexico, a country he had not lived in since he was 18,” Brusso said. “We realized how vulnerable people are, that there are people in this country who are living lives on a daily basis [that are] very different from the lives that we are living.”
After sending letters to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement hiring a lawyer and traveling to the border, Brusso and his community were successful in raising the profile of the story locally. He was released from immigration detention on the day he was supposed to be deported again.
“He wasn’t just a custodian,” Brusso said. “He was a very much a part of our synagogue family. He knew everybody’s names. He was trusted.
“People trusted him with their children. He greeted our nursery school kids on a daily basis. We felt that we had a sacred obligation to do everything we could, and it took us about a year to figure out how to do it.”
Brusso believes that it is important to educate future generations and raise awareness on the topic of immigration because it is an issue that many do not worry about or think will ever affect their lives.
“We take [citizenship status in his country] for granted because we didn’t do anything to earn it, work for it, or in any way deserve it,” Brusso said. “Most of us were simply born here and we just assumed that we belong here. I think it’s really important that we raise sensitivities around these issues and at a minimum begin from a place of tremendous humility about how fortunate we are to have gotten a status, we did nothing to deserve.”
Brusso’s experience helping Rojas gave him new insight on the process that one must go through to gain citizenship in the US, and it showed him that it is not as easy to come to this country as some people think.
“The process has taken years,” Brusso said. “They’re extraordinarily bureaucratic the way that people are treated in the immigration system because they don’t have the status of citizen. I think if people really knew how people were being treated in the immigration system in this country and I think in many ways people have started to see some of that. But if we really knew, I think we would understand why it needs to be fixed and why we need comprehensive immigration reform so badly, which by the way, is something that is desired by all people of all, all kinds of political backgrounds.”
Additionally, High School principal Eric Bassin has been trying to bring in a variety of speakers for special programming to convey to TLS students how to be active members of the community. These speakers have brought up how to inspire a culture of “upstanders,” not bystanders.
“For Friday Special Programming, we choose speakers that expose students to an issue they perhaps have not thought or learned much about in their regular classes,” Bassin said. “Our goals are varied; we want to expose our students to a multiplicity of topics, people and opinions; we seek to broaden students’ awareness and perspectives; we aim to make our students more culturally aware and sensitive; we strive to motivate, inspire, and develop empathy in our students. Special guest speakers often inspire our students toward action.”
Brusso said, as members of the Jewish community, it is our obligation to do everything we can to help immigrants because we too have been persecuted and thrown out of the land that we called our home.
“We have been strangers in many lands over millennia, and it has always been a part of our mission to never be so comfortable in one place that we forget what it’s like to be from another place,” Brusso said. “And we have in the Torah and in the Talmud, sources and stories that time and again remind us of how important it is for us to continue to be aware of what the experience of the stranger is like.”