It is 3 p.m. on a Friday, and Steve Teichner has already put in more than 40 hours of work this week. He will leave around 5:30 p.m., if no more migrants show up at the shelter. “It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” says the retired educator. “It’s something I feel that if I’m not doing, it’s not right. Not because of guilt. Because I believe in rainbows and diversity. These people would make our country better. And like the Statue of Liberty says, we put our hand out and give people an opportunity.”
Lately, Teichner has been spending his days at Tucson’s old Benedictine Monastery helping any way he can to welcome asylum-seeking migrants, mostly from Central America, to the shelter. It is certainly not his first rodeo on the humanitarian front in Tucson. He relocated here 13 years ago, for his wife’s health, after he retired from teaching on the “south, south side of Chicago.” When his wife died eight years ago, he decided to do a mitzvah every day. “Every step I take is a sacred step,” he says. He started by purchasing items at thrift stores and giving them away to help the homeless.
Teichner was an activist as far back as the mid-’60s when he was with Clergy and Laymen Concerned About the War in Vietnam, also known as Clergy and Laity Concerned, under the National Council of Churches. “I was a conscientious objector, and my parents supported that. My father always was a pacifist,” he recalls.
“I’m familiar with people of different faiths. No religion is more important than the other. We all need to be open-minded and loving. I became a vegetarian. I built a philosophy of non-violence, and believe what goes around comes around. I’ve studied Torah and read about humanity and social justice. I believe it would be a much better country with variety — different cultures, thoughts, and ideas. A klezmer song says why it’s important how you place yourself in the world. Be proactive,” he says.
Teichner attended a meeting of Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans and decided it was something he should do. The group offers humanitarian aid to migrants in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands and believes in one’s ethical responsibility to assist those who are suffering. Shura Wallin, the founder of Samaritans, is among Teichner’s greatest Jewish influences, he says.
Helping with water drop-offs in the desert, to hydrate migrants crossing the most dangerous stretch of the desert, “I learned a lot about Nogales and the Tohono O’odham reservation. How people easily used to go back and forth across their lands. That they can’t anymore is not right.”
He learned about Mitzvah Day in Phoenix, an annual day of social action sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, and became involved in “gratitude in action.” Teichner is active with many of Southern Arizona’s humanitarian groups: Humane Borders, No More Deaths, and Tucson Jews for Justice, among others. He describes his experience at El Comedor, Kino Border Initiative’s dining facility in Nogales, Mexico, for migrants waiting to cross the border. “What really affected me, I saw people with beat up feet and with only the clothes on their back.
“I don’t like borders, even the borders that separate food in the supermarket. And I don’t like stereotypes. I’ve heard them all — kike, fish peddler. My grandmother used to talk about ‘those people.’ If you use hate and stereotypes, you don’t see the people.”
Citing how the United States denied entry to Anne Frank’s father, Otto, during the Holocaust, Teichner says he doesn’t want to see that history repeated. “People are fleeing their countries now because of violence,” he says of the current migrant crisis. “It’s difficult to leave your home, but you want to protect your family.
“I try to control my anger with the government and not hate a person but their ideas, like people who make America hate again. Why is it okay for Border Patrol to destroy water bottles left for migrants in the desert and a crime for someone to save a life?” he says, referring to the case of Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths who was charged with three felony counts of conspiring to harbor and transport undocumented aliens in 2018. His trial in the U.S. District Court in Tucson ended in a hung jury on June 11.
“Commonality is understanding. We know something must be done. We can’t just abandon people. The Jewish Federation already has done a lot in providing shoes, backpacks, and supplies … Temple Emanu-El has extended itself contributing food and help. There are many Jewish volunteers here [at the shelter]. I really respect Catholic Community Services,” he says, noting the work they have done processing more than 8,000 migrants this year.
“I’d love to see 12 rabbis here stand together and say they stand with migrant rights and to defend them. We need to remember what we’ve learned and not turn our back on our neighbors, not be vengeful. People communicate in different ways. When [the migrants] leave [the local shelter], they give us hugs. Not one of them takes anything for granted.”