Oral history interview with Bob Skloot

Bob Skloot was and still is a member of Beth Israel Center Synagogue in Madison, WI. In 1983, he was instrumental in convincing his congregation to partner with three other faith organizations–the Community of John XXIII, Covenant Presbyterian Church and Bethany United Methodist Church–to sponsor the “Gonzalez” family in sanctuary. Bob credits Rabbi Charles Feinberg with being the engine behind Beth Israel’s commitment for which they raised money, collected clothing and other household goods, and organized gatherings where the “Gonzalez” couple could tell their story.

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    [00:00:00] INTRODUCTION
    [00:01:38] THE SANCTUARY MOVEMENT OF THE 1980s

    [00:00:00] INTRODUCTION

    Interviewer: Hello, I'm Joan Laurion, and today is November 7th, 2022. I'm here with Bob Skloot, and we are recording for the Madison Public Library Living History project. And I'm going to let Bob introduce himself. So go ahead, Bob.

    Bob Skloot: Thanks, Joan, and good morning to whoever is listening to this. I'm happy to be with you. Though you can't see me, I hope that what we have to say this morning will be illuminating and interesting and a good something for the archive that the Madison Public Library is accumulating. And we are part of it. We're proud to do that. And let me say, I'm a retired professor of theater from the University of Wisconsin. I've lived here, for now, more than 50 years. I came here in what I call the "times of maximum turbulence," and I'll have reference to that in a few minutes, I think. And in the 1980s, helped to perhaps organize somewhat and be part of the wonderful group of people who recognized the need for doing something that would help the crisis for the refugees in Central America.

    So today's story will be filling in some blanks that you may not know and which I may have forgotten, but which I had to do some study in order to retrieve the memories that had faded. So good morning to you all.

    [00:01:38] THE SANCTUARY MOVEMENT OF THE 1980s

    Interviewer: Thank you, Bob. Can you briefly explain what the Sanctuary Movement was and why it was happening in the mid-1980s? And then tell us what it looked like in Madison.

    Bob Skloot: From memory and from a little bit of extra research, I tried to find out a simple answer to this very complicated question. And I came back to the same idea and the same stimulus for the activities that we'll be describing today. I believe that the Sanctuary Movement was the actual revolutionary legacy to the events that transpired a decade or so prior, by which I mean the war in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, when the United States as a country exploded with anti-war demonstrations, combined with the crucial demonstrations and movement towards institutionalizing and making viable the new concern with civil rights in the United States. Both of these issues, the civil rights issue and the antagonism and hostility and anger over the war in Southeast Asia, produced or developed in enormous numbers of people, though not as much perhaps as we would have liked, an energy that was sustained and maintained over the decade, which took us into the '80s and into the subject which brings us together today.

    And that is the development of and the institutionalizing of and the evidence of this energy, which then maintained itself into the 1980s and into the time of Sanctuary. We were a group in the United States that grew, I think, out of this social justice movement and with a kind of dissipation of the center of the issues in Vietnam, though its repercussions are lasting and in fact even continue until today. Numbers of people, including numbers in Madison, which has been and has a reputation of being, whether justifiable or not, an exceedingly politically liberal city. The determination to harness this energy for what was to become the public sanctuary project over the United States.

    By its height, I would say there are among almost 500 sanctuary cities or places in which this movement developed and just exploded. It too, after a while, subsided. But for those years in the 1980s, it was a time of ferment and revolutionary energy that was taken over and used for the justifiable process of assisting people in distress and in harm's way to bring them some semblance of order and safety and perhaps even kind of new lives in new places. So my research today, I suppose, tells us or reminds us that by 1980 or '81, hundreds of thousands of refugees were fleeing from political violence in Central America, and a substantial fraction of those people came from El Salvador.

    The other nations, as is today in Honduras and Guatemala and Nicaragua, also provided numbers of refugees who swarmed -- who left their own nations in order to find peace and justice somewhere else. What I'll say perhaps now and maybe later was the importance of this movement, which became a public movement. In the past as well, there was private sanctuary efforts going on. But they were not made public in a way that the citizens of the United States would understand that this is not an issue which is focused only on Madison and San Francisco and New York and Chicago and a couple of major urban centers. But in fact, took place all over the United States in much of that time, at those places in the south of the United States where the migration had taken enormous leaps in numbers.

    The history also involved not only the arrival and the crossing of the border of these people who were escaping political turmoil and economic devastation. The movement in the United States to make it more difficult for this to happen. And with the election of Ronald Reagan and his presidency, the opportunities for coming to the United States were becoming more limited, and the repercussions, draconian in some ways, on people who were helping them was a motivation for the Sanctuary Movement to begin and to be sustained. So the public movement of Sanctuary began somewhere in the early 1980s in response to deportations and this huge influx of refugees combined with individual events such as, for instance, the assassination of Bishop Romero in El Salvador in 1980, which became one of the incidents which sparked the movement and the understanding, in some ways continentally wide, about how difficult and life-threatening existence was in those, especially, four countries in Central America.

    Anything else?


    Interviewer: Tell us what the Sanctuary Movement looked like in Madison. Who was involved?

    Bob Skloot: I can call the "Sanctuary team" in Madison was comprised of numbers of individual people who coalesced then into a group which was sustained and organized by a number of religious organizations. The group in Madison was known as the "Second Site" group. The "Second" because there was a first site, which was comprised of taking into Sanctuary a single individual from El Salvador, a man, and then a family from Guatemala -- a family of four. This lasted for a short amount of time in about 1983 in Madison, and it morphed into what we call the "Second Site," which included my religious-affiliated group, which was Beth Israel Center, the conservative Jewish congregation in Madison. And this was combined with three Christian communities: the Community of John the 23rd, which was a Catholic organization brought together by this Sanctuary movement, the Covenant Presbyterian Church, and the third was the Bethany United Methodist Church.

    I wanted to say also how important this was, among other reasons, because it presented and what became, we think, the first Sanctuary group in the United States that was interfaith. This became a very important reason for the community of Jews in Madison, not all of them but many of them, to join together with the three Christian groups into an interfaith organization, which provided us not just political solidarity but a strong and long-lived friendship with persons in the faith community with whom we had no contact previously. But which in our social action and social justice movement hoped to join with them and to find not just political solidarity but friendship.

    And it lasted for a number of years, even after our membership lapsed.

    Interviewer: Thanks, Bob. Now tell us, why did you and your synagogue get involved? And how did you convince others to join you, and did you get any pushback?

    Bob Skloot: Sure. This may have been the most turbulent aspect of it all. But a number of us who were part of what we called then the Social Action Committee of Beth Israel -- now it's called the Social Justice Committee in Beth Israel -- gathered together with our political awareness. And more important still, the understanding first of American history and secondly of the necessities and the commandments of Jewish culture and sense of assistance to those in need came together and brought the two, the board of directors of Beth Israel, the need, the idea that we as a congregation should participate in assisting those who were in great danger.

    Of course, understanding of this was all throughout the newspapers in the United States, and it was an example of how what was a turbulent and angry movement in the '60s and '70s came to be transferred into this new movement of social justice. So we brought this to the board of directors and asked if we could commit ourselves to joining with others and to creating the Second Site Committee, as it was to be called. And after some discussion -- this would have been in the fall of 1983 -- the board of directors agreed that it would participate in this organization and that certain stipulations applied. The first was that the movement or this affiliation would only last for six months, and it would begin with the arrival in Madison of the people to whom we were going to provide sanctuary.


    Bob Skloot: And so on February 19th, 1984 -- and I'll say a little bit more about this in a minute -- we welcomed into Madison and into our Sanctuary group the family of Rogelio and Maria, the two parents of the children who came along with them, and provided for them a time of safety, we hoped, and a time of a public discussion. And because of the desires of Rogelio and Maria to take their story around Madison, around Dane County, and even further afield, to speak to them about the struggle that they were involved with and the danger they particularly were in, and to alert United States citizens and those in particular in Madison and Dane County to the dangers and terrifying atrocities which were taking place in their native country of Guatemala but similarly in the other three countries on Central America.

    So the board voted. I think the vote officially was something like nine in favor and three against and two abstentions that we would make this affiliation. Other stipulations were that we had to commit ourselves to spending time working on this committee and also to raising funds to help them. Funds which would go towards paying for their rent in an apartment which we located. Also for clothing, especially in winter. They forget they were from Guatemala -- had no experience with Madison winters. And food as is necessary, and whatever else we could provide that would give them what they needed in order to at least temporarily be sustained by people who understood their plight and was hopeful of ameliorating the dangers that that involved.

    So the synagogue agreed, and until August of 1984, when the six months elapsed, our committee led the congregation. I want to say here one crucial thing, that we could not have done this, and there's no question we would not have had the strength, if you will, even the spiritual strength, without the leadership of our young rabbi named Charles Feinberg. "Chuck," as he was known to everybody, was really the great leader of this effort and helped us as a committee to be convinced that we were doing the right things, both for historical but above all for religious or spiritual reasons. So, again, after 40 years, Chuck, if you're listening to this, thanks again.

    It was a terrific thing that you did for us and for the people who we were helping. Now, the last question had to do with pushback, and the answer is yes. The movement to do this in Beth Israel was by no means unanimous, and there were certain members of the congregation who were opposed to doing this, essentially for political reasons. Some of them had a legitimate basis because there was concern of having a religious organization be involved in what could be called perhaps sectarian politics and to keep the separation of church and state as central to being adhered to. And those who were opposed, some of them, felt that that wasn't appropriate. But more important was the antagonism towards this idea by a certain small number of people who accused this committee, the people in the committee, and others of doing things which, looking back on this and reflecting upon it, was not only illegitimate but disgraceful.

    But the implications of their antipathy towards this had to do with accusations that we were communist stooges, that we were being misled by people whose own affiliations were Marxist and who were contravening America's own issues and understandings because America, on the highest level in our government, was linked to the countries in Central America that were leading the atrocities against these people. So we were then "contravening American foreign policy." So we endured what we could of what was really kind of malignant criticism, and totally we felt unworthy of not only people who are intelligent that we knew these people were smart; but also people who themselves were tainted by the belief that what we hoped to do and were attempting to do was blighted by anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, pro-PLO, pro-Marxist, pro-communist ideologies, which were clearly not what we should be doing as a synagogue or others as well.

    Well, it lasted six months. I think the target for economic necessities was $2,500 in 1984. That was kind of a lot of money, especially for our synagogue, which was rather small, numbering somewhat up of 200 families or units. So this represented something that couldn't be sustained in a normal budget but had to be raised otherwise. We did do that, and we maintained the work that we were doing, shepherding as we -- and I guess "shepherding" is a good word -- the family who we became very close to. By the way, Rogelio, Maria -- these names are pseudonyms. Many of us, including myself, never knew their real names, because in taking entrance into our embrace, their names needed to be changed for public reasons.

    This may be a question we're moving into, Joan. It was crucial that joining into the Sanctuary Movement was a public issue. The family that we were helping was determined themselves to alert all of the United States and its citizens to the atrocities that were going on continuously in these Central American countries, which required almost the dispatch of themselves out of harm's way and into a better place of living, if only temporarily. And so, Rogelio and others traveled all around the county and city, as I mentioned, to the places which were educational, which were spiritual, academic, economic to greet people who might be needing of information.

    The story that was happening in the events which even today, in much, much, much, much greater intensity, are happening in the United States concerning the fleeing of refugees into the United States to save their own lives.


    Interviewer: So Bob, now tell us: what was your most powerful memory of working with Rogelio and Maria in the Sanctuary Project for yourself?

    Bob Skloot: I guess the memory I have that's dearest to me in which I have on rare occasions thought about, certainly when I was thinking about this time 40 years ago, was the event which was called the "Sanctuary Declaration Service" done at Bethany United Methodist Church, where upwards of 200 people gathered on that date in mid-February in 1984 to present to the community, the social action and social justice committees, but to the citizens of the city in which we lived, this family. This was highly reported in the newspapers at the time. They appeared at the service wearing ski masks, including the kids, and one of them was an infant -- also had a mask on. So their introduction, of course, was had an aspect of anonymity.

    But in that service, numbers of people spoke as to the importance and the necessity for our spiritually united community and politically united community to come together at this time. And I mention this because, when I was chosen to be a representative of Beth Israel at this service, I brought to the attention of those people in the audience the understanding and the importance of a historical connection that needed to be made. And briefly, I would just say -- and which really took time to elaborate on a date of some years before of May 13th, 1939, when 900 or more Jews from Europe sailed on the ship from Hamburg, the liner, the SS St. Louis, seeking sanctuary for themselves from the rise of Nazi Germany and the dangers that the strength and the decision of Germany to destroy its Jews was made.

    And so they tried to leave, and did leave, and reached our hemisphere only to find that they were turned away. They landed first in Cuba and were prohibited from debarking. They moved into the United States and also found that it was prohibited for them to leave the ship. And after enormous struggle and enormous difficulties, nothing could move the government, our government, and so the ship of St. Louis had to return to Europe. The result of that was in 1939 that the Jews on that voyage were divided into three and dispersed throughout England and France. And ultimately, the larger percentage of that number were destroyed in the Holocaust. So this search for sanctuary, which it legitimately could be called, resulted in an event which for many Jewish people and certainly for me, had a direct connection to the arrival in Madison of Rogelio and Maria and their kids, and to make sure that we would do whatever we could in our small way not to turn them away from the sanctuary that they needed.

    So it was a moving moment for me, clearly. I remember it quite clearly. And for the many others who were there too, tears were shed and songs were sung. And at the end, food was eaten, and everybody, I think, felt a sense of triumph and success in making this work. It was not easy, but that's the way things are when you have to do things that are not so popular, and we did. And here, let me sing this song, which I never heard before but did then and occasionally think of today.

    [ Singing ] Well, we sang it that day. We sing it when we can, and it's still relevant, still useful in its own ways to rally forces in order to struggle against those forces that would create a situation of horror and terror, both in the countries where they lived and in the places they were coming to. So there it is. That's what I can tell you.

    Interviewer: So one last question, Bob.

    Bob Skloot: Sure.


    Interviewer: How can you imagine that the Madison Sanctuary Movement that you've been telling us about helped set the stage for the community effort that followed to name Arcatao, El Salvador, as our first official sister city in 1986?

    Bob Skloot: An answer to that wonderful question has to be somewhat speculative, but I would answer in this way: just as there was enormous pent-up energy after the anti-war years in their urgency and entirety towards the end of the '70s, that energy flowed, I think, on the part of many people into the understanding that another place was needed in order to do the work in another way. And the group of people who founded Madison-Arcatao as the first sister city of Madison took their energies and created a place, both political and intellectual and economic and of necessity to come to the city of Madison and request that it then found a sister city with a struggle that was happening in Arcatao, where people from Madison had had some connection.

    Then, subsequently, as many in Madison know, there were up to 11 sister cities. The connection we have to Arcatao still exists. And I would just say as well, there's an understanding here that we can say makes American history look good because, in the Civil War, there was also the opportunity and the necessity and the actual events which gave Americans opportunity to sequester and shelter those who were fleeing slavery from the south into the north, and substantial numbers were in fact saved this way, though many, of course, were destroyed. So historically and spiritually, it was clear that these events, which had produced the anti-war demonstrations in the '60s and '70s and the Sanctuary Movement of the 80s, morphed, if you will, into the sister city movement in Madison in the mid-1980s.

    In 1986, I believe, the Madison-Arcatao sister city project or association or whatever came into being, and we're very proud of that.

    Interviewer: Bob, that was so wonderful. Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything you'd like to add that I didn't ask you?

    Bob Skloot: I think I've explained as much as I can. And I could only say that the events which took our attention and time and money in 1984, '85, really, are the same as they are today. The world is filled with violence and terror. And people of good will -- not necessarily people who were spiritually inclined, but the people who have good will -- recognize this, will do what they can to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And so, "paso a paso," step by step, you know, we'll make the effect that we can to help bring justice and peace to the world.

    Interviewer: Thank you, Bob.