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Tikkun olam: Bob Feinman

Bob Feinman

In 1967, Bob Feinman, an 18-year-old Jewish kid from New York City found himself in Tucson, enrolled in college, knowing no one. He could speak Spanish, but had never heard of a taco. He ended up with a 40-year career in Spanish language radio and became an advocate for the safety of people crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.

“I grew up in New York, the biggest melting pot on Earth,” says Feinman. “Instead of staying within my own group, I took advantage of being part of other communities, and learning languages was always easy for me.” He grew up speaking German and Yiddish. He learned Spanish through a class and from kids in school and working in businesses where Spanish was spoken. When he came to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, he understood Spanish as spoken by people from Cuba or Puerto Rico, but the Mexican Spanish he heard in Tucson was different. He learned to adapt.

He didn’t finish college, but in the late 1960s, he got a job in radio. “I met the owner of a radio station in Tucson and he liked my deep voice,” says Feinman. “I made a tape to audition and the next thing I knew, I was an announcer for Tucson’s first rock radio station.” The owner also had a Spanish language station. When he found out that Feinman could speak Spanish, he realized that “this kid is two for the price of one,” and had him working both stations, sometimes on the same day.

“When I came to Tucson I was scared and missed my home in New York,” Feinman recalls. “To me, Tucson was like a different planet.” The Spanish-speaking community in Tucson got to know Feinman through his work in radio. “I was the only non-Mexican, Spanish-speaking person on the radio, and the Mexican American community thought I was cool,” says Feinman. “They invited me into their homes for Christmas and other special occasions — they gave me my first feeling of home and family in Tucson.”

Spanish language radio provided Feinman with a good career, and in 1983, he moved to Phoenix to pursue further opportunities. He eventually acquired his own station. In 1996, he sold the station and moved back to Tucson, where he spent the rest of his career in Spanish language radio.

“I have lived in Arizona for 50 years and have grown to love the Hispanic culture here,” says Feinman. “I have become very involved in the Hispanic communities on both sides of the border, and have been to Mexico many times.” This connection with Hispanic culture, along with his Jewish heritage, led him to his volunteer work with Humane Borders, an organization that helps to prevent deaths among migrants crossing Southern Arizona deserts.

Brought up in what Feinman describes as an “ultra-Reform Jewish home,” he didn’t have the influence of observed traditions, Hebrew school or a bar mitzvah. But every year, a major event took place in the home of his Orthodox grandparents. The Passover seder was a bigger celebration than any other holiday.

“My parents would tell me that I had to go to the seder, but it was hard for a kid in grade school,” says Feinman. “There was no junk food, we had to sit through what seemed to me like five hours, and I would feel half-starved while smelling all that wonderful food cooking in the kitchen.

“The story in the Hagaddah was drilled into me during this annual ritual, it was my ‘formal’ Jewish training. The thing is that the story of the Exodus, the hardships of the people wandering in the desert, made a lasting impact on my life.”

When Feinman first read about migrants getting lost and dying in the Arizona desert, he says, “The light of the Hagaddah went on and these stories sounded like the story told during the seder.” He decided to volunteer for Humane Borders because being Jewish connects him with the plight of these people, and because he is grateful for all the warmth and love he has received from the Hispanic community.

Humane Borders, founded in 2000, is a nonprofit dedicated to humanitarian aid through maintaining a system of water stations on routes used by migrants traveling from Mexico to the United States. Their mission is to “save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure.” Nearly 3,000 deaths have been documented by the U. S. Border Patrol for the Tucson and Yuma sectors from 1998 through 2016.

Teams of volunteers regularly check water stations placed on government and private land with permission from the landowners. They are very careful to stay within the law in their efforts to save lives, and have strict rules governing volunteers. They also carry first aid kits, blankets, clothing, and food, and notify the Border Patrol if they come across migrants in need of emergency medical care. The group acknowledges that undocumented border crossing is illegal, but believes it “shouldn’t carry a death sentence.”

Feinman has served as a volunteer for Humane Borders checking the water stations and trying to educate people about the crisis. He is now on the board of directors. He also has talked to mi-grants in an effort to warn them of the dangers of crossing the desert.

“I have tried to warn people that they are being lied to by smugglers who just want their money and won’t tell them about the dangers,” says Feinman. “Sometimes after explaining the dangers people will ask for the Border Patrol and are willing to go back.” He met one woman in her 20s from Mexico, who not only wouldn’t pay attention to warnings about the desert, but said she was waiting to obtain an additional $1,000 because her smuggler said he would give her a rape insurance policy. She preferred to believe the smuggler rather than Feinman. He did not see her again and does not know what happened to her. “It is all you can do not to cry when they don’t listen to you,” he says.

Sometimes people complain about what Humane Borders and other humanitarian groups do to help undocumented migrants because all they can see are people who are in the United States illegally. Feinman says it took a while for him to be able to respond to such complaints without getting too emotional. “If you were out for a hike in the desert and came across someone dying of thirst, wouldn’t you try to help, or would you just leave the person to die?” he asks. People make this dangerous journey because they are fleeing the misery of poverty and are trying to find a better life. Many are fleeing a situation where their lives have been threatened.

He says that the Jewish community has generously responded to this crisis with volunteers and donations.

“As long as I am healthy and strong I will not stop working for Humane Borders,” says Feinman. “I do this for love of the land and the culture and to be a good member of the community and to be a good Jew.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.