Sometimes, it’s all about harnessing your resources.
Tamara Duker Freuman of Nyack and Becky Stiles of Northvale knew they couldn’t solve the refugee problem themselves, but they also knew that if somehow they could tap into the compassion and generosity of their large social network, they might just be able to make a difference.
And they have made a difference — one pair of shoes at a time.
“About the time of the presidential election, I knew that we needed to reach out and show support for refugees,” Ms. Freuman, a nutritionist and author who grew up in Teaneck, said.
“It started informally with Becky and other congregants at CSI,” Nyack’s Congregation Sons of Israel. Ms. Freuman is a member there now, and Ms. Stiles who belongs to Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley used to be, when she lived nearby.
At first, the two women held occasional programs at the synagogue to sensitize congregants to the plight of refugees. “But as we started to learn more, we knew that wouldn’t cut it,” Ms. Freuman said. “Sending cards is not enough. The more we learned, the more we knew we had to find established groups to hook into.
“We met for breakfast in June to hash it out.” They also took stock of what they had to offer.
“We are really well connected,” Ms. Freuman said, noting the groups to which the two women have access, including shuls, camps, and Hebrew schools. “We wanted to use this vast, generous, and sympathetic Jewish community to harness the resources of our network to provide material support.”
Originally, they talked about sponsoring a refugee family. “But CSI is a very small shul, and we did not feel we had the resources to take on a project that required so much time and money,” she said. Instead, they realized, “We are a community with money and with people who want to help.”
Creating the Tristate Jewish Network for Refugee Support, which, thanks to Ms. Stiles, now also has the active support of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, as well as from other Jewish institutions across New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, the women ultimately decided to help by providing much-needed material aid to 200 refugee families who have resettled in in the mid-Hudson Valley within the last two years.
According to Ms. Stiles, “These families include many war widows with young children. They had husbands who were translators for the military, who were killed by the Taliban. Most of these women never were literate. This is a huge culture shock.”
Ms. Stiles, who moved to New Jersey last year, said she and Ms. Freuman both work, and both have young children. Ms. Stiles is director of research and development for a chemical company, and she and her husband, Paul, have a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. Ms. Freuman lives in Nyack with her husband, Alex, and her 7 l/2-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
The two women defined their goals after meeting people who knew people and introduced them to other people.
Through an acquaintance, “I got plugged into Vassar College Refugee Solidarity,” Ms. Freuman said. “I spoke with the faculty adviser and she welcomed us, telling us about families and needs. She provided us with lists of goods they needed.” Vassar, she said, was working with the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance.
After their first project, securing household goods and gift cards for the refugee families, Ms. Freuman and Ms. Stiles hit on the idea of providing shoes for children who would be going to school in the fall. To accomplish this, they created an online registry on Amazon.com (https://amzn.to/2szwW7J), including a wish-list of back-to-school shoes. For many of these children, it will be their first pair of new shoes.
To facilitate the project, “We asked for the names of people in Albany who could liaise directly with families for shoe sizes,” said Ms. Freuman, who was subsequently put in touch with Albany’s Islamic Center. “We needed someone there to receive shoe delivery and distribute them. They put us in touch with two congregants from the Center, Amira and Sara, a mother and daughter from Sudan. They went door to door and helped children get their feet measured. It was essential to helping us figure out what should be on the registry.”
Ms. Freuman and Ms. Stiles set a goal of 270 pairs of shoes. They met it. That’s why “Becky and I moved up the timing of our next planned campaign — backpacks and socks — and added them to the registry,” Ms. Freuman said. “We’ve been using the gift cards people send to buy school supplies for the kids. Winter coats and hats/gloves will be our next campaign, once we get these kids ready for the first month or two of school.”
Temple Emanuel has endorsed the project enthusiastically, Ms. Stiles said. “I brought it to my synagogue and Rabbi Monosov and Rabbi Kniaz were really supportive,” she said; Shelley Kniaz is the synagogue’s director of congregational education. The synagogue sent out information about the registry as part of its Caring Community newsletter and email.
Susan Liebeskind, chair of the Community of Caring, said, “This is our chance to make a difference in the families’ lives, and to live our Jewish values of welcoming the stranger.” Her synagogue is active in a wide range of social action issues, from gun control to immigration, she added.
“A lot of Americans and American Jews feel the plight of refugees in a personal way,” Ms. Freuman said. “We feel personally helpless, but we want to help. So we found an opportunity to support people already here. Shoes, coats, backpacks — these are tangible things. We’re giving people a channel and opportunity to do something, taking their own charitable instincts and giving them a way to do something tangible.”
“People are thanking us,” Ms. Stiles said. “They’re watching the news and feeling helpless. This is a concrete thing — a real opportunity to make a difference for a small amount of money.”