In response to increasing detentions of undocumented immigrants, the Hamden-based progressive Reform synagogue Congregation Mishkan Israel decided to laugh alongside members of the immigrant community, at an interfaith comic fundraiser last Thursday.

The Comic Relief Fundraiser — designed to raise money for the Immigrant Bail Fund — featured two comedians with religious backgrounds. Bob Alper, an ordained rabbi, performed alongside Gibran Saleem, a Muslim Pakistani-American from Virginia. Pastor Paul Fleck of Hamden Plains United Methodist Church described the event as “a roaring success.”

The event raised more than $26,000, partly due to a matching contribution of $10,000 from an unnamed donor. The night started with singing by an a capella group, followed by performances from the two comedians.

Alper described the routines as apolitical and said the crowd was responsive throughout the night.

This event is part of a continuous project by Congregation Mishkan Israel and other religious organizations in the greater New Haven area seeking to provide recourse to undocumented immigrants. These groups are also involved in the sanctuary movement, a national trend in which religious institutions shelter immigrants facing deportation. Fleck said there are currently two individuals living in sanctuary in houses of worship in Connecticut.

Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel explained that providing physical asylum only covers part of the synagogue’s work. While people live in sanctuary, religious groups work together to provide legal recourse. In late July, Brockman said, the synagogue reached out to the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School to assist in the case of Nury Chavarria, a single mother of four children from Norwalk, who had sought asylum in a New Haven church. The religious groups’ collaborative effort achieved a stay of deportation for Chavarria.

“It’s easier for [immigration officials] to pick the lower fruit off the tree. These are people who have done nothing [to harm the community],” Brockman said.

Brett Davidson ‘16, an organizer from the Immigrant Bail Fund, said the fund was formed in January from the combined efforts of the Connecticut Bail Fund, immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Acción and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. The IBF seeks to support detained people by paying to release them from detention and by covering their legal fees. So far, he said, the group has paid eight bonds and is ready for more. But the strategy can only accomplish so much, he added.

“The need will always outpace what we can fundraise, which is why our focus is a holistic movement building in partnership with immigrant rights workers statewide,” Davidson explained in an email.

Commenting on the supportive crowd at the comic-relief event, Alper said he would gladly have performed for twice as long. Fleck emphasized the importance of providing an outlet in such a “grim environment.”

Brockman said he first employed comic relief as a fundraising method in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the mid-2000s. For that event, like the one last week, he sought comedians to represent all three Abrahamic religious traditions.

Brockman said last week’s comedy show sent a strong message by bringing people from various faiths and ethnicities together. He said he sees laughter as an essential weapon and — drawing on his experience as a Jew — values the ability to “make fun of our enemies.”

Brockman’s favorite moment of the night came at the end, he said, when Alper and Saleem danced to an Irish folk song together on stage. To him, it captured the spirit of the evening.

“It was a time of levity, where people who appear very different — in age, religion, race — together did something silly but also wonderful,” he said.

Tommy Martin |