“This is the issue we want to wrestle with and tackle in 2010,” PAJC board member and chair of programming Marshall Dayan said Nov. 19, during a soft launch where the board of directors heard from fellow member and immigration lawyer Bob Whitehill.
In the coming months, the board plans to continue educating itself on the issue, hearing from advocates on the left and right.
In late January, the PAJC is hosting a “moderated community conversation,” where the public will hear from a variety of voices in the immigration debate — like schools, social services, health agencies, business and labor — on a variety of issues — like reuniting families and ensuring domestic security.
The PAJC chose immigration for practical and progressive reasons.
Immigration is an issue with a long history in Pittsburgh and for American Jews.
When Pittsburgh was the “workshop of the world,” immigrants came from all over the world to work in manufacturing. European Jews likewise made several major migrations to western Pennsylvania between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s.
Immigration took center stage a few years ago, during failed attempts to reform the federal immigration system in the second term of the Bush administration. Since then, the troubled economy helped lower the profile of the issue on the national stage.
“We in western Pennsylvania haven’t had the massive influx of immigration that other areas have had. But I have to say I think it’s coming,” Dayan said.
Educating people about the issue now, he said, will allow the region to prepare.
Education and dialogue are major components of PAJC activities. Until now, those efforts have focused largely on interfaith issues, bringing Jewish leaders together with local Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim and other faith groups in the city.
This effort aligns with that interfaith mission, said PAJC Executive Director Deborah Fidel.
While immigration no longer holds the immediacy for American Jews it held a century ago (or even 20 years ago, during the influx of Soviet Jews coming to this country), the issue remains a major concern for other faiths, particularly Hindus and Muslims.
Fidel said Jewish support for immigration reform could strengthen ties between Jews and other religious groups in Pittsburgh, partnerships that would benefit Jews in the long run.
“We’re not only trying to do what’s good, but also what’s good for Jews,” Fidel said.
But Dayan and Fidel both see an obligation for American Jews to improve immigration, because of the historic importance of immigration to the American Jewish community.
That idea drives the work of PAJC’s national affiliate, the American Jewish Committee, Fidel said. “This organization was founded on the premise that the American Dream will only be accessible to Jews if it is accessible to all minority groups,” Fidel said.
The American Jewish Committee is already involved in immigration, releasing several position papers on the issue since the attacks of 9/11 changed the immigration debate.
The hope of the immigration campaign isn’t just to inform the community about a hot-button issue, but also to position the PAJC as “the thinking person’s Jewish organization” in Pittsburgh, as Fidel put it. The group plans to tackle more issues in the future, and add programming like book groups and discussions groups on big ideas and major issues.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)