Is there a Jewish Obligation to Provide Immigrants Sanctuary? Tufts Hillel Moral Voices, Sukkot 2018

What is Sanctuary?

“Sanctuary” as defined by the contemporary New Sanctuary Movement has a variety of different meanings, all of which relate to protecting immigrants and preventing deportation. Many people, upon hearing the word “sanctuary,” imagine an immigrant living in a church or synagogue. This one form is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other equally important strategies for defending immigrants and preventing deportation.

Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, a national leader on sanctuary, offers these seven categories of action, in order of increasing levels of investment, as one framework for approaching sanctuary:

• Change federal public decisions by changing hearts and minds

• Create a local safety net

• Advocate for local policy

• Advocate for specific individuals and families

• Provide pastoral and practical support, including being part of a shelter-cluster

• Engage in rapid response

• Offer physical shelter


Refugee—A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their home country due to persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (e.g., members of the LGBTQ community). The persecution a refugee experiences may include harassment, threats, abduction or torture. A refugee is often afforded some sort of legal protection, either by their host country’s government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or both.

Asylum seeker—An asylum seeker is a person who has fled persecution in their home country and is seeking safe haven in a different country, but has not yet received any legal recognition or status.

Migrant—A migrant is a person who chooses to move from their home for any variety of reasons, but not necessarily because of a direct threat of persecution or death. Migrant is an umbrella category that can include refugees but can also include people moving to improve their lives by finding work or education, those seeking family reunion and others. (

Empathy & Protection for the "Stranger"

(לג) וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ (לד) כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

(33) When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. (34) The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your G-d.

(ט) וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

(9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Laws of Refuge & Refugees

(י) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כִּ֥י אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃ (יא) וְהִקְרִיתֶ֤ם לָכֶם֙ עָרִ֔ים עָרֵ֥י מִקְלָ֖ט תִּהְיֶ֣ינָה לָכֶ֑ם וְנָ֥ס שָׁ֙מָּה֙ רֹצֵ֔חַ מַכֵּה־נֶ֖פֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָֽה׃ (יב) וְהָי֨וּ לָכֶ֧ם הֶעָרִ֛ים לְמִקְלָ֖ט מִגֹּאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א יָמוּת֙ הָרֹצֵ֔חַ עַד־עָמְד֛וֹ לִפְנֵ֥י הָעֵדָ֖ה לַמִּשְׁפָּֽט׃
(10) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, (11) you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. (12) The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.

גופא ערים הללו אין עושין אותן לא טירין קטנים ולא כרכין גדולים אלא עיירות בינוניות ואין מושיבין אותן אלא במקום מים ואם אין שם מים מביאין להם מים ואין מושיבין אותן אלא במקום שווקים ואין מושיבין אותן אלא במקום אוכלוסין נתמעטו אוכלוסיהן מוסיפין עליהן נתמעטו דיוריהן מביאין להם כהנים לוים וישראלים ואין מוכרין בהן לא כלי זיין ולא כלי מצודה דברי רבי נחמיה וחכמים מתירין ושוין שאין פורסין בתוכן מצודות ואין מפשילין לתוכן חבלים כדי שלא תהא רגל גואל הדם מצויה שם א"ר יצחק מאי קרא (דברים ד, מב) ונס אל אחת מן הערים האל וחי עביד ליה מידי דתהוי ליה חיותא

§ The Gemara discusses the matter itself, and it cites the complete baraita: With regard to these cities of refuge, one does not establish them in small settlements or in large cities; rather, one establishes them in intermediate-sized towns. And one establishes them only in a place where water is available, and if there is no water available there, as there is no spring accessible from the city, one brings them water by digging a canal. And one establishes them only in a place where there are markets, and one establishes them only in a populated place, where there are many people who regularly frequent the town. If the population of the surrounding areas diminishes, one adds to it. If the number of residents in the city of refuge itself diminishes, one brings new residents to the city, among them priests, Levites, and Israelites. The baraita continues: And one may not sell weapons or hunting tools in the cities of refuge, to prevent the blood redeemer from gaining access to means that he could exploit to kill the unintentional murderer who fled to the city of refuge; this is the statement of Rabbi Neḥemya. And the Rabbis permit selling weapons and hunting tools. And Rabbi Neḥemya and the Rabbis agree that one may not spread nets in the cities of refuge, nor may they braid [mafshilin] ropes in those cities, so that the foot of the blood redeemer will not be found there. If the blood redeemer were to enter the city of refuge to purchase nets or ropes, he is apt to encounter the murderer and kill him. Rabbi Yitzḥak says: What is the verse from which these matters are derived? It is written: “And he shall flee to one of these cities and live” (Deuteronomy 4:42), meaning: Perform some actions for the unintentional murderer so that life in the city of refuge will be conducive to living for him. All these steps are taken to facilitate that objective.

(טז) לֹא־תַסְגִּ֥יר עֶ֖בֶד אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֑יו אֲשֶׁר־יִנָּצֵ֥ל אֵלֶ֖יךָ מֵעִ֥ם אֲדֹנָֽיו׃ (יז) עִמְּךָ֞ יֵשֵׁ֣ב בְּקִרְבְּךָ֗ בַּמָּק֧וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֛ר בְּאַחַ֥ד שְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ בַּטּ֣וֹב ל֑וֹ לֹ֖א תּוֹנֶֽנּוּ׃ (ס)

(16) You shall not turn over to their master a slave who seeks refuge with you from their master. (17) They shall live with you in any place they may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever they please; you must not ill-treat them.

Hospitality & Accompaniment

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 14

(2) The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: "He saw three men … he ran to meet them" (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: "Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed" (Sotah 46b).

(3) Local residents are compelled to provide escorts for wayfarers just as they are compelled to contribute to charity. The court used to provide agents to escort any person who would pass from one locality to another. Those who shirked this duty were regarded as if they shed blood [because of the dangerous roads]. Even if one accompanies another the distance of four cubits, he will be amply rewarded.

Accompaniment—Citizen allies, particularly faith leaders or other community leaders, can escort immigrants to their ICE check-ins. In addition to bolstering the immigrant’s confidence and self-worth, it can sometimes change ICE’s decision to arrest. If an arrest is made, the accompanying ally can at least provide information to the arrested person’s family and friends. (

Non-cooperation with the law?

Sanctuary City—A city that has adopted policies of non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities. There are a variety of approaches.Some activists are also calling for “expanded sanctuary,” meaning a broader reform of policing and judicial policies to increase public safety, reduce discrimination, and end mass incarceration for all residents of the city, not just the undocumented.

Sanctuary Congregation—A congregation that has officially declared its commitment to and involvement with the Sanctuary Movement. Some sanctuary congregations are hosting or prepared to host immigrants in their buildings. Others are dedicated to supporting the host congregation or to other kinds of advocacy. In some areas, these congregations call themselves a “cluster,” which forms around the host congregation at the core. To date, the vast majority of synagogues declaring themselves sanctuaries are in the support category, not the host category.


(ז) וְדִרְשׁ֞וּ אֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הָעִ֗יר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִגְלֵ֤יתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ שָׁ֔מָּה וְהִתְפַּֽלְל֥וּ בַעֲדָ֖הּ אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֣י בִשְׁלוֹמָ֔הּ יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (פ)

(7) And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.

גמ׳ והאמר שמואל דינא דמלכותא דינא

GEMARA: The Gemara asks, concerning the mishna’s statement that one may take a vow to tax collectors: But didn’t Shmuel say: The law of the kingdom is the law, i.e., there is a halakhic principle that Jews must obey the laws of the state in which they live?


Mikdash: a Jewish Guide to the New Sanctuary Movement:

Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition:

Massachusetts Community Action Network (MCAN):

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS):