The mansion on South Fullerton Street in Montclair is the kind of grand home that was bestowed a name when it was built in 1906.
Red Gables is what it is called, because of the soaring Gothic roof lines, topped by a very Mediterranean terra cotta roof. It is the kind of place, in the early part of last century, that would have been maintained by immigrants — Italian gardeners, Polish maids, and such.
The home is an important part of Montclair history. It was designed by artist Florence Rand Lang (of the Ingersoll-Rand fortune), who was the major benefactor of the Montclair Art Museum.
That’s the early history. The modern history is that the mansion now houses Bnai Keshet, the Hebrew School of a Jewish Reconstructionist synagogue next door, which has owned the mansion since 1996.
Among the 280 families in the congregation are first-generation immigrants, including Holocaust survivors and other Jews who came from places not as welcoming as the United States.
In recent weeks, the top floor of the mansion was renovated by volunteers to create a one-bedroom apartment for those no longer welcomed in the United States: people facing deportation because of their immigration status.
As the debate about immigration rages on, it is important to remember our government’s complicit role in allowing people deemed “illegal” to stay, flourish – and pay taxes.
The United States government continues to offer “undocumented” people documentation — tax identification numbers that enable them to pay taxes, own businesses and get mortgages.
Twelve states and Washington, D.C., allow them to get a driver’s license, and New York and New Jersey seem headed in that direction, as well.
The point here is that we, as a nation, have sent mixed messages.
And for people such as “illegals” Oscar and Humberta Campos of Bridgeton, who were forced to leave their legally-owned home and their three American-born children under the threat of deportation last December, that just seems unfair. The Camposes, featured in a column here, in December, came to the U.S. 30 years ago. Oscar had a landscaping business with a legally registered truck and a driver’s license obtained under old New Jersey laws.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the government stepped up deportation of illegal immigrants, and the effort has been ratcheted up, in rhetoric especially, under Donald Trump.
Last October, several Montclair congregations got together to form the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance and create a safe place for a family or individual facing deportation.
“We stand for an America that welcomes people escaping poverty, conflict or human rights violations,” said Elliott Tepperman, the rabbi at Bnai Keshet. “We had the space and we had the will, so we offered to build it here.”
The people-power to get the place cleaned, sheet-rocked and painted, and install a new bathroom, came from the synagogue and several other houses of worship, including the First Congregation Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and Grace Presbyterian Church, all of Montclair, and the Ner Tamid Union Congregation in Bloomfield.
Once renovation work was done, donated furnishings came in – a microwave, toaster oven, chairs, and a new couch and bed. Rugs were installed and the place was ready for a tenant.
Tepperman said the churches also have put together teams to help with legal work and hospitality needs, such as shopping.
“We have about 100 people involved,” he said.
The churches are working with several immigrant advocacy groups, including Faith in New Jersey in Camden, Make the Road in Elizabeth and Wind of the Spirit in Morristown, to find people under the threat of deportation or in need.
While no law prevents immigration officials from arresting people housed in church property, Tepperman said it is a line the government has not yet crossed.
“For decades, they (immigration enforcement) have had a policy of no arrests at schools, hospitals, courtrooms or houses of worship,” Tepperman said. “So far, that seems to have held up.”
Last week, as the finishing touches of the rooms were made, two Hebrew school students were putting sheets and comforters on the bed.
Alishsa Davis and Elliott Morley, both 12, were tightening and smoothing out the bed linens.
Elliott was born in Guatemala and adopted by Carole Schlitt of West Orange when he was 5 months old.
“He became an American citizen the minute we touched down,” she said. “For him, it was the luck of the draw. Many children don’t have those opportunities and they should. Our immigration policies are real violations of the rights of children.”
Elliott and other sixth graders at the school are working on a tikkun olam (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’) project to support Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Immokalee is a tomato-growing center. Many of the fast-food companies that buy the region’s products entered an agreement to pay more per pound, so field workers can earn more and live in less squalid conditions. On Saturday at 2 p.m., the kids will march in front of a Wendy’s in Bloomfield, to protest the chain’s decision not to join the agreement.
“This is what we’re trying to teach them,” Schlitt said. “Social justice.”
Likewise, Tepperman said, America’s immigration goal should be to alleviate “human suffering and abuse.”
“We figured out how to move commerce, information and capital across borders,” he said. “Why can’t we do that with people?”
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at email@example.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.