Over the last several years, members of Temple Emeth in Teaneck have grown increasingly concerned about the plight of refugees.
“I think the issue of refugees came to the world’s attention around 2013, as we became aware of the refugee crisis that was generated by the Syrian civil war,” Steven Sirbu, the congregation’s rabbi, said. “Some children were losing their lives in perilous Mediterranean crossings, and countless more were losing their childhoods in refugee camps. It was the largest displacement of people since World War II, and there was something about this crisis that resonated with me and with others in my congregation.”
Community events focused on immigration stirred the synagogue community as well. And they noticed that the name HIAS appeared over and over again.
“The 2015-16 selection for JFNNJ’s One Book, One Community program was ‘A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir,’ by Lev Golinkin,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “The author tells his experience leaving the Soviet Union as a young boy with his family in 1989. HIAS plays a crucial role in their journey to the United States.”
“When Temple Emeth held its event about the book, Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, was our guest speaker. He began by asking for a show of hands as to how many people’s families were assisted by HIAS. About half the room raised their hands.”
One reason HIAS’s work resonates with so many Jews, “even though we disagree about so much, is that the refugee experience is so fundamental to Jewish identity,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “Abraham and Sarah are wanderers. Jacob has to leave his home under the threat of violence. The Israelites need to escape Egypt in such haste that their bread does not have time to rise. And of course the Holocaust shapes this perception too. Whether it was the preventable tragedy of the [steamship] St. Louis or the slanders against Jewish refugees who were accused of being dangerous anarchists, it is instinctive to the Jewish community to help the vulnerable and to share our blessings of freedom.”
Current events have focused the congregation on the immigration issue even more directly.
“The 2016 election cycle featured the unabashed scapegoating of refugees,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “I could tell that many of our members were distressed that the United States might shut its doors — doors through which our ancestors passed in the last century — to refugees, abandoning one of its central humanitarian programs. I responded by choosing HIAS to be the beneficiary of our Yom Kippur appeal in 2016. One of our members, a Holocaust survivor named Peter Adler, spoke about his experience with HIAS as his family arrived here.”
And then last February, Temple Emeth members Laura and Daniel Kirsch arranged for a bus to bring congregants to lower Manhattan for an immigration rally.
“Temple Emeth has long been in the forefront of the social justice movement, dating back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Mr. Kirsch said. “Many of our members have personal ties to HIAS through their own histories, or those of family members, and many more know that they would not be here today if the United States had not admitted refugees in the past.”
Temple Emeth has signed up as a HIAS welcoming congregation. It joins more than 380 synagogues around the country that have pledged to take at least one action to support refugees. “It’s a way to stand together with other Jewish institutions against the hateful rhetoric and attacks against immigrants generally and refugees in particular, and makes an affirmative statement in support of welcoming refugees to the United States,” Mr. Kirsch said.
To illustrate the importance of unity, the synagogue opened up the rally bus to members of a neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom. “While Reform and Conservative Jews have disagreements on prayer and the role of Jewish law, on the issue of refugees, we found common cause,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
Both congregations have found ways to address the issue of immigration. While Temple Emeth has joined the HIAS Welcome Campaign — on January 26, the congregation will host Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS’ director of education, who will speak on Welcoming Refugees: Learning from the Past, Rising to the Moment — Beth Sholom has taken another approach and is helping a specific refugee family.
Describing HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, as a global Jewish organization for refugee resettlement and advocacy, Rabbi Meyer said the group is “growing a huge constituency of American Jews taking action for refugees.” Her talk at Temple Emeth is the synagogue’s first such action since signing on to become a welcoming congregation.
Is this our grandparents’ HIAS? Yes, Rabbi Meyer said. “The work we do today grew out of the 137-year work we have done bringing Jewish refugees to this country and helping them here. In many ways, the services we are now providing are same ones provided to our grandparents: job assistance, housing, vocational training, ESL. Maybe the immigrants are from different faiths and places, but it’s very much the same work.” Even more important, she added, “It’s rooted in the same values.”
Most of those immigrants coming today are not Jewish, simply because there is only a small number of Jews around the world who are trying to come as refugees. “For the first time in history, Rabbi Meyer said, “the Jews aren’t predominantly refugees.” HIAS’ work is international. “We help refugees in the first country they flee to,” she said. “We do local integration work so they can live in safety and dignity.
“It is a devastating moment now for refugees,” she continued; at the end of the last fiscal year, the number of refugees allowed into the county was lowered to a figure not seen since 1980. And, she added, “Because of the temporary ban on refugees from 11 countries, they may not even reach that cap. The nations included in the 11-country ban account for more than half of the refugees resettled last year in the U.S. That’s part of why we’re so far behind where we should be. It’s a real betrayal of American values. We were founded by immigrants and refugees. And it’s a betrayal of Jewish values.”
Even more devastating, she said, “There’s never been as much need, factually speaking, with the worse refugee crisis in recorded history. To see us dial back is tragic and sets a bad example. The U.S. has always been a global leader in resettlement. We need to be a global leader.”
The first thing the Jewish community can do to address this issue is “advocacy, advocacy, advocacy,” Rabbi Meyer said. “We’re really in an unprecedented moment. The policies we set now will have repercussions for decades. We must continue to raise our voices” to ensure that the government admits at least the 45,000 refugees it has agreed to take in. Whether the action is taken individually or collectively, “it’s so important to be vocal about refugee resettlement.” In addition, synagogues should “make themselves visible as a congregation who does this, perhaps hanging a ‘refugees welcome’ banner. We were refugees too.”
There is also a great need for education so members of the community can be informed about what’s going on, she continued. Refugees are people escaping violence; people who are persecuted simply for being who they are. And “we have to put some myths to bed,” Rabbi Meyer said “This is a safe program.” No one HIAS has resettled has been part of any terrorist act.
In order to help, people can become volunteers either with HIAS or with one of the other resettlement programs, such as the International Rescue Committee. Immigrants may feel unwelcome in this country. Helping them integrate would be a big help.
“One note of comfort has been the robust constituency of American Jews raising their voices,” Rabbi Meyer said. Jews may not have been involved in this issue until now, with the possible exception of speaking out for Soviet Jewry, she added. “They’re stepping forward in amazing ways.” That includes participation in interfaith coalitions, organizing letter-writing campaigns targeted to members of Congress, attending rallies, and working with local resettlement agencies to adopt families and provide support.
“Unlike the other commandments, we are given a reason to love and protect the stranger,” Rabbi Meyer said. “That is because we were strangers ourselves. We don’t understand the exact situation but we understand the vulnerability. We have a special responsibility to stand in solidarity with others who are vulnerable.”
Temple Beth Sholom, also in Teaneck, has taken a different approach to the issue of refugees, Rabbi Lee Paskind said. He and Rabbi Julia Andelman are co-chairs of the shul’s Tzedek Tirdof committee. Members of the committee are working with the International Rescue Committee to help provide assistance to a refugee family now living in central New Jersey.
Like members of Temple Emeth, “I think initially many of us were deeply moved by the pictures several years ago showing refugees from the Syrian civil war washing up on the beaches of Lesvos in Greece and other locations,” Rabbi Paskind said. Like Rabbi Sirbu and Mr. Kirsch, he said that “for many of us, the identification runs very deep. So many of us were refugees, or our parents or grandparents were.
“Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, formerly vice president of HIAS, put it like this: ‘A century ago, we — HIAS — saved them because they were Jews. Today, we save them because we are Jews.”
When he was asked if the committee members had encountered anything surprising in their work with the refugee family — which includes providing material assistance, transportation, and help navigating the administrative and medical hurdles faced by all new families, as well as teaching English to family members who may not have been able to write in their native language — Rabbi Paskind said, “What hasn’t been surprising? Meeting a family from another culture, with expectations very different than ours — and without a great deal of common language — is quite a challenge. And yet at the same time, some of the universal facts of life — the curiosity of the children, their ability to play, to adapt to very different life circumstances — these give me hope for them.
“And they are a pleasure for all of us to get to know.”
While the fact that the assistance is being offered by a Jewish group may not be terribly important to the new refugees, he said, “For us, all our volunteers, I think it has been central,” though, he admitted, he may simply be extrapolating from his own feelings. “We know the Torah’s repeated command to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger. We have studied Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ remarkable teaching that ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ turns out to be relatively simple, for she or he is usually rather like oneself. But the Torah commands us to ‘Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ So we are to love those who are not like ourselves!
“I think we are all finding this an important and moving experience.
“I hope it is also important for the family we help,” he added. “They know we are Jewish. Some of our conversations touch on differences and similarities. I think some of us may hope that we can be unofficial ambassadors of goodwill from the Jewish community to refugees of other faiths. That can only be a good thing.”
Rabbi Paskind said people looking to help must proceed on two levels. “For many people on our committee, it was the one-on-one, hands-on helping of a refugee family that stood out as what they wanted to do. I believe that while we can do something really good for one family, while our country is turning its back and closing its doors as it did when the ship St. Louis was forced to turn around and sail back to Europe, the local mitzvah is only part of the story.
“I feel called to work to turn around the xenophobic response that has increasingly become official policy. If we want to be true to our history as immigrants, I think we need to lobby Congress and the White House to accept more, not fewer, refugees. We need to support the Dreamers and make them feel welcome again, not criminalize them and [chase] them from their homes.
“There’s a lot more we need to do.”
Who: Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer
What: Will talk about “Welcoming Refugees: Learning from the Past, Rising to the Moment”
When: On January 26 at 8 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
For more information: Go to www.emeth.org