The Cries of Children At Our Borders

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As a mother, a rabbi, and a professional, I have often struggled to decide when to prioritize my work, and when to prioritize my children. This story has served to guide me:

The young Rabbi DovBer of Lubovitch was a young father, living downstairs from his own father, the Rebbe Schneur Zalman. Both father and grandfather were deep in their work, studying late into the night in each of their apartments, when Rabbi DovBer’s baby fell from the crib and began to wail. Immersed in work, the young rabbi was oblivious to the wailing, yet the older Rebbe jumped from his desk upstairs, and ran to his son’s apartment, to lift and soothe his grandchild back to sleep. DovBer remained oblivious, glued to his work. Later, Rebbe Scheur Zalman chastised his son: “No matter how important or sacred your work, you must never fail to respond to the cries of a child.”

That story from Jewish tradition guided me as a young mother, and still guides me today: nothing takes moral precedence over the suffering of a child, and those cries must wake us to action.

Yesterday, a number of us walking through the halls of the 14th Street Y shared that we struggled to sleep after hearing these cries of children separated from their parents at the U.S. Border. The horror of what’s happening has been particularly painful for the staff of our early childhood programs, those individuals who have dedicated themselves to nurturing the emotional and physical well-being of the little ones who come through our community center.

“Trust and emotional security is essential for young children’s emotional well-being. These children need caring adults they know and trust to process strong feelings and experiences. By separating these children from their families they are interfering with the children’s ability to process and heal from what they are experiencing and they are further traumatizing them. This often brings their growth and development to a screeching halt. That’s why all our early childhood programs come from the approach that children should be intentionally phased in to programming, so they feel comfortable and confident with staff. Our mission is to ensure every child has the emotional support they need to thrive, something that the current administration isn’t taking into consideration at all with their cruel family-separation policy.”
—Michael Luft, Director of Early Childhood Programs

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has openly opposed this policy of separating children, and it’s president, Colleen Kraft, MD, MBA, FAAP, has urged the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to reverse this policy immediately.

She explains that:

“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health. In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children.”

We know that this policy causes trauma, not just to the children, but their families and entire communities. It’s hurting us all.

We recognize that the President has signed an executive order that will end family separation, and this can’t happen sooner, but this will not change things overnight. Families still may not see each other for weeks or months. And families may still suffer similar trauma due to the detention conditions.

Our agency, as one inspired by Jewish values serving the needs of immigrants, children, and families, cannot be silent at this moment. Children separated from their parents are wailing at the border, and we have heard their cries.

We are in a moral state of emergency, and as a part of Educational Alliance we’re proud to support our dedicated leader and CEO, Alan van Capelle, who signed the Bend the Arc: Jewish Action’s letter today. This declaration urges us to take decisive action to stand with immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers and insist “Not here. Not now. Not in our name.” I urge you to lend your voice and take action with us by signing this letter.

I have been hearing from many of you that you want to find a way to act in this moment. We will gather as a community to share our concerns and determine our communal response in support of children and families negatively impacted by current immigration policies and their implementation.

Please join us on Tuesday, June 26 from 6:00 – 8:00 PM for the 14Y Community Forum Supporting Immigrant, Migrant, and Refugee Families. I look forward to seeing you at this important gathering, which offers us the opportunity to address how this impacts our families, our community, and our nation—and find meaningful ways to help the families who are being torn apart.

It is a Jewish aphorism that in sharing our individual strengths, we are all strengthened. Together we can respond to the urgent cries of children and strengthen our community. I hope to see you on Tuesday or feel free to email me at SEpstein@14streety.org.