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Tucson migrants benefit from generous donations by Wisconsin congregations

(L-R) Shelter coordinators Diego Piña Lopez and Francis Wheeler, Jim Rich, Jill Rich, and volunteer driver Seth Ruskin unload coats and goods donated by Milwaukee’s Congregation Shalom at the Casa Alitas migrant shelter in Tucson. (Photo: Debe Campbell/AJP)
(L-R) Nina Edelman, Diane Wolfson, and Judy Shapiro with some of the coats donated by Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee for migrants passing through Tucson. (Photo: David Wolfson)

A sermon at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee translated into generosity from that community to Tucson. It all began when Rabbi Ronald Shapiro joined a group of rabbis visiting a migrant detention center in San Diego in the spring. Returning to Milwaukee to share what he witnessed, he relayed how the refugees needed winter coats. “What he said tugged at me,” recalls congregant Nina Edelman. “I thought, we’re not in a border town to directly help, but why can’t we do something here?”

Edelman reached out to a former student and family friend in another border community, Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Graham Hoffman, who connected her with Jill Rich, social action committee chair for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Jewish Community Relations Council. “Jill was very approachable, helpful, and impressive in providing specifics for background information which we could share with the community,” Edelman recalls.

“I contacted Rabbi Shapiro with the idea of a High Holiday drive, thinking that families would be shopping for school and might be willing to purchase an additional item or two. Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Noah Chertkoff agreed to speak from the pulpit at Rosh Hashanah about the opportunity to do a family mitzvah.

“Immediately, jackets, socks, and backpacks started arriving at drop off boxes in the synagogue. We had already taken in carloads. During Yom Kippur, there was a van in the parking lot. The synagogue’s social action committee also decided to make a generous donation to the JFSA Migrant Program.”

The act of buying the items with family members, and making the decisions for the benefit of others was important because it modeled the act of participating in a mitzvah, Edelman says. “It was also an education for many in a community physically removed from the situation about the refugee experience and the difficulty of having everything known taken away. So many have felt helpless to do anything. This opportunity became a concrete expression of concern for others. For the older children, they may now better understand the parallels of the plight of Jews throughout history, and especially during World War II in Europe more readily.”

An article in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle stimulated interest and donations. Congregation Emanuel of Waukesha collected a carload of donations to add to the shipment. The crew sorting and packing boxes included David and Diane Wolfson, Judy Shapiro, Nancy Gorens-Edelman, Beth Rattner, and Juan Guitan.

The two-week drive filled two U-Haul vans with 500 pounds of clothing, including 1,300 pairs of socks, 217 coats, and 66 backpacks. Boxes were delivered to Tucson this week for distribution through Casa Alitas migrant shelter, operated by Catholic Community Services.

“The response has been so touching,” Rich said of the coat drive. She adds that Tucsonan Audrey Brooks also is shipping a “carload of coats” from Wisconsin, and a New Jersey federation has launched a coat drive.

Rich attributes the widespread interest to a 23-member Jewish delegation from 12 states in September. The fact-finding mission trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in collaboration with JCRC and the Jewish History Museum, gave participants a first-hand view of the migrant situation, which they took home to share with congregants and communities (see AJP, 9/27/19, “National delegation bears witness to border immigration issues”).

JFSA has raised more than $80,000 in its drive to support migrants in Tucson and continues to welcome donations. Go to www.jfsa.org/make-a-donation and indicate “migrant relief” in note section.