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Jewish groups step up as NYC declares no more room for migrants

This article originally appeared on ejewishphilanthropy.com

As New York City runs out of room in shelters to house the tens of thousands of asylum seekers that have poured into the city in the last year, Jewish groups are scrambling to up their resources and help find temporary shelter.

This Shabbat marks one year since the halls of New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal turned into a makeshift immigration center when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing asylum seekers to New York City.

The past year has seen a record number of migrants from across the globe — from Colombia to Venezuela, Chad to Peru — seek refuge in the Big Apple, a city legally required to give shelter to anyone who asks for it.

But just before the Aug. 5 anniversary approaches, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced over the weekend that the city’s shelters are full. Adams, who has offered no explanation for the situation, has called for state and federal assistance.

Masbia, the kosher food pantry and soup kitchen, has been among the groups there to greet hundreds of asylum seekers and provide support such as handing out free shoes and shopping trips to Target.

Alexander Rapaport, Masbia executive director, told eJewishPhilanthropy that Port Authority has turned into a “mini Ellis Island.” Last year, Masbia set up a three-foot-tall Statue of Liberty in the terminal to welcome immigrants. He said Jews from a wide range of backgrounds have been eager to help, including a Hasidic group from Borough Park, Brooklyn, who donated “loads” of clothing.

But Rapaport expressed concern that as the city allegedly runs out of shelter space, the majority of New Yorkers are focused on other crises.

“This situation has totally broke down,” he told eJP. “There are only so many beds you can take over and more and more people arrive. No one wants to allow their school gymnasium to become a shelter. For us to sustain what we do, there needs to be an appetite from donors,” he continued.

He said the migrant crisis has become too politicized.

“The asylum seeker situation has been a hard sell from the get-go. My anecdotal feeling as to why people aren’t so enthusiastic to help is that people see politicians bickering in the news over this issue, rather than a sob story or seeing how people are in crisis. If people knew migrants were walking through the jungle to get here, it would open people’s hearts.”

“What New York City is doing is out of this world, it’s phenomenal, but on the other hand you will never see New York City bragging about it because if they brag about it they’re inviting more migrants, so the narrative is never shaped showing people in need growing through terrible hardship,” Rapaport continued.

Another Jewish group that announced it will continue offering assistance to migrants, despite the city running out of shelter space, is Commonpoint Queens, a sister organization of HIAS. CommonPoint Queens has been, and will continue to, provide case management services to newly arrived migrants under the Assistance for Migrants Program.

Brynn McCormick, CommonPoint Queens assistant vice president of workforce services, the department which runs the group’s resettlement and integration services division, told eJP, “Commonpoint has been providing services that help meet basic needs of migrants and serve to foster their stability. Additionally, in support of the Migrant Relocation Assistance Program, Commonpont staff have been working with migrant families, as identified by the New York City Department of Homeless Services, for relocation to counties outside of New York City.”

“The services are provided in person at Commonpoint Queens sites throughout Queens. Commonpoint has been providing direct assistance to clients in the form of housing support (rent, security deposits, utilities, etc), clothing, baby supplies, food, technology, transportation,” McCormick continued.

Rabbi Marisa Elana James, director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in Manhattan, the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, said she is inspired to help asylum seekers from a Jewish perspective and her family’s history.

“I think about my own great-grandparents coming to New York and they had very little support,” she told eJP. “All of the support came from only within their own community, it’s not like there were immediate neighbors and friends helping to navigate the immigration system and often a new language.”

“The word ‘Hebrew’ means those who cross over,” James continued. “Our entire story that we tell every year from the Torah is a story of leaving one place to another and rebuilding a life elsewhere, whether it’s Abraham or the Exodus from Egypt. And throughout history, every single Jewish family has some story of dislocation.”

“We’re working with a specific population within a population,” James told eJP, noting that about three-quarters of the migrants they help are LGBTQ or HIV-positive. “Whether it’s Guatemala, Ukraine, there’s always LGBTQ folks among them and being a minority within a minority makes it harder.”

CBST has trained close to 1,000 volunteers, rather than relying solely on lawyers. Volunteers partner with what the congregation calls “immigrant friends,” assisting through the process of applying for asylum, including accompanying to court dates and doctor appointments.

James expressed skepticism that the city has indeed run out of beds overnight.

“How does that suddenly happen?” she asked. “I’d like to know more. It’s like, I know I’m running out of milk so I’m planning in advance to get more.”

“I don’t think New York is full,” she said. “I think that’s the magic of New York City. In every generation people have complained ‘too many immigrants, too many people coming from outside.’ In every generation, those of us descended from immigrants know, they figured it out, they found places to live. My great grandparents never really learned English and that’s ok because they raised kids who led beautiful, meaningful lives. The people coming here are going to do the same and I just hope we can nurture them.”