Helping Afghan refugees
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Helping Afghan refugees

At last, there’s something we all can agree on

A family evacuated from Afghanistan is led through the arrival terminal at Dulles International Airport in the Washington area in August to board a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
A family evacuated from Afghanistan is led through the arrival terminal at Dulles International Airport in the Washington area in August to board a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Recently, the AP, citing results of a new poll, noted that most people in the United States want to see Afghans who worked with Americans offered resettlement in this country. Indeed, unlike many other issues, this one, helping former military translators and others struggling to escape Taliban rule, has support across political divides.

That sentiment is borne out in the work of several organizations close to home, including one Conservative synagogue in Rockland County. Shir Shalom in Nanuet (at the former home of the Nanuet Hebrew Center) became involved in the relief effort “when I received an email from a board member whose wife is involved in social action,” the synagogue’s co-president, Jeff Schragenheim of Nanuet, said.

Before the union of the Montebello Jewish Center and the Nanuet Hebrew Center — of which Shir Shalom is the offspring — “The Montebello Jewish Center had a social action committee,” he said. “We wanted it back up and running.”

The email in question originated with Holly Fink, the head of the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration, and included a list of supplies urgently needed by Afghan refugees. It explained that the WJCI was working with UJA-Federation of New York to help coordinate the collection of supplies for newly arrived refugees at Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, which are side by side in South Jersey.

Other organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, joined the effort; they include the JCC Mid-Westchester in New Rochelle and the Shames JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown as well as the Afya Foundation in Yonkers and the San Francisco-based Upwardly Global, which has a local office. About 30 synagogues participated, either as collection sites or through internal drives. While Shir Shalom’s name did not appear on the original flyer, “our media maven was able to squeeze our name in at the bottom,” Mr. Schragenheim said.

The supplies sought included new or gently used winter coats, shoes, strollers for infants up to one year old, women’s handbags with long straps, backpacks, razors, and bottles of shampoo. They could be donated directly or bought through an Amazon wish list. The drive ended on October 10. On October 11, volunteers sorted and packed up items to go to the military bases. On October 12, “extra-strong volunteers” were recruited to put the boxes on the truck.

After receiving the email, “We all agreed it was a good idea,” Mr. Schragenheim said. “The refugees at the bases are not equipped yet. We have to get them the things they need. I gave the information to Bruce Pollack, our social media coordinator, and we also decided to get our youth involved,” specifically, to bring in the youngsters at the end of the drive to sort the collected items.

His synagogue has several ongoing chesed projects, including a shoe drive run by the sisterhood and a food collection for a local pantry. “We decided that when we merged, we would continue to observe these obligations,” Mr. Schragenheim said.

As the collection ended, Shir Shalom “had collected around six bags of jackets, backpacks, and shoes,” Mr. Schragenheim said. He also knew that many congregants had made their contributions through the Amazon site. “It’s heartwarming that we’re getting so much,” he said. As a new congregation — the consolidation took place July 1 — “it’s our first opportunity to do something, and we’re going to do a lot more. There’s a core of interested people.”

He also noted the synagogue’s rabbi, Paul Kurland, appealed for contributions during a Shabbat sermon, and that its USY board adopted the drive as the year’s first social action tikkun olam project.

“Any act of charity makes you feel good,” Mr. Schragenheim said. “It’s heartwarming to help your fellow man. When you give of yourself, it makes you feel good.” In effect, then, giving to others is a “selfish” feeling, and “we should be as selfish as we can, giving as much as we can. Giving of yourself to others is the true meaning of charity.”

While Bergen County Jewish organizations have not yet engaged in active efforts to help the new refugees, Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, which helped resettle an Afghan family several years ago, is exploring how the synagogue can help those who arrived recently. Synagogue leaders plan to talk to HIAS (the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the International Rescue Committee to see how the shul can best help.

Meanwhile, Derek Sands, Bergen County’s communications director, said that Leslie Maltz, the Bergen County Project Linus chapter coordinator, has asked the county for logistical help in getting blankets to Fort Dix. Project Linus volunteers, known as “blanketeers,” provide new washable handmade blankets to be given as gifts to seriously ill and traumatized newborns through 18-year-olds.

Ms. Fink explained her organization’s commitment to refugees by noting that “As Jews, we too, were once refugees. We know what it is like to flee for our lives because of anti-Semitism and genocide. We also understand the importance of keeping our families together and ensuring their safety.” Afghan refugees, she said, “have come America with few belongings, lacking knowledge of the English language, possessing a slate of different customs and traditions.

“We help Afghan refugees because not only do they deserve our help after serving as allies and protecting our country, but because they need our help in restarting their lives. This is what our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents were once forced to do. The Talmud states that ‘He who saves one life saves the world.’

“Knowing that we are keeping one child warmer this winter by providing a winter coat or pair of shoes from our collection is just one small step we can take to ensure the warm welcome our allies and the Afghan women and children who have been living in fear deserve.”

Alison Millan, who oversees operations for the International Rescue Committee’s New Jersey resettlement office, said that the group is still assessing the best ways for faith communities to support Afghan arrivals, but also is working to “collate expressions of community interest. We anticipate community co-sponsorship may be of interest to some members of the Jewish community,” she said in an email. “We should have more public information on this option available in the coming weeks.”


The IRC invites individual participation in a variety of ways. For example, the organization partners with Airbnb for temporary housing of refugees and suggests that those with space to host a refugee family sign up with Airbnb’s Open Homes program (www.airbnb.org/refugees). The group also has a formal volunteer application for people who wish to become IRC volunteers for at least six months
(rescueglobal.secure.force.com/volunteer/ ) People who are interested in short-term paid positions to support processing of Afghans at the U.S. government facility in Elizabeth can apply; google “IRC Afghan Evacuee Operations Assistant.”

In the meantime, “cash donations or leads on affordable housing are most helpful to allow us to quickly and effectively respond to the needs of newly arriving families.”

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