Local shul’s members want to help
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Local shul’s members want to help

Interfaith effort to aid Syrian refugees spurs reflection, discussion

Migrants wait to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece last October. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Migrants wait to be processed at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece last October. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Teaching at his synagogue’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky spoke about a Jew’s responsibility to help others.

The question is asked every day. Should we allot our (inevitably limited) resources only to our own people, or should we help those further afield? Should we factor in religion when making our decision? What about geography?

The discussion did not start and end with the tikkun. For several months, Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom has been discussing the place of social justice on the synagogue agenda. Can the synagogue, or any synagogue, take on causes that do not reflect the needs of its membership, or the community in which they live? Should it?

Rabbi Lee Paskind, who was a congregational rabbi in Peekskill, N.Y., and now lives in Teaneck and is a member of Beth Sholom, would say that our responsibility goes way beyond our borders, to any group in dire need.

Rabbi Paskind, who has participated in the Conservative movement’s social justice commission for nearly 30 years and now is a part-time consultant on these issues to the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, will be joining about eight other congregants in New York City on June 26 as they stuff hygiene kits for Syrian refugees.

“I’ve been involved in social justice issues for a long time,” Rabbi Paskind said, noting that his participation this time is as an individual. The synagogue is not taking a formal role in the effort.

Rabbi Pitkowsky, however, clearly is proud of his activist congregants. “I am thrilled that this group of Beth Sholom members is moving ahead with the program to create emergency kits for Syrian refugees,” he said in an email. “The understanding that each human being is created in the image of God is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Acting on that belief, and working to guarantee the safety and dignity of each human being, is God’s work that we should all take part in.”

The June 26 project is a joint effort of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Heart to Heart International, and various other groups. Group organizers hope that some 600 volunteers will turn out to assemble more than 7,500 kits, which are to be shipped to Istanbul and distributed to refugees in many countries.

While most kits will contain basic hygienic supplies, special packages for women and girls also are being prepared.

Rabbi Lee Paskind
Rabbi Lee Paskind

“One of pharmaceutical companies is donating all the materials,” Rabbi Paskind said. He pointed out that the groups organizing this effort have people on the ground in all the communities to which refugees have fled, from Jordan and Turkey all the way up to Europe.

“They’re trying to organize for 600 volunteers,” he said. “It’s a large operation. They’re doing it in three one-hour shifts starting at 12:30. There will be people of all religions, as many groups as they can get. It’s intended to be a very large positive statement about Americans of all religions reaching out to help refugees no matter who they are.” After learning of the project through the Rabbinical Assembly, Paskind sent out information to all Conservative rabbis in the tristate area.

“We don’t have an official group in the synagogue that is working specifically on social justice issues, but a small group has been having a variety of discussions about possible programming ideas,” he said about Beth Sholom. As part of this effort, Beth Sholom held a workshop before Pesach, in which participants discussed, among other things, the plight of Syrian refugees.

“Since then, we’ve been talking about other possibilities,” he said. “We don’t have an official name or presence; we’re trying to decide what our profile should be.” The synagogue, he continued, “wants to discuss this some more. It’s not the type of activity [it usually does]. Some people don’t think this is the kind of activity a shul should be involved in.”

For his part, though, “Saving life, and this arguably is exactly what these kits will do, is a mitzvah. Since the Torah commands us to love the stranger in our midst, I believe it is a religious commandment to help people in these kinds of straits. You should see stories about things that have happened [to the refugees.] The West only became aware of this dire situation a few years ago. That was already three years into the Syrian war.”

The United States, he said, is “being hands-off,” especially after the massacres in Paris and Brussels. “Personally, I understand being concerned, needing to be vigilant for the security of our country,” he said. “At the same time, we’re simply commanded not to look away. We have to figure out how to do what we can. This is the easiest thing to do, but it sends a strong message. Standing side by side with people of other religions means something.”

Paskind noted that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has “an entire PDF file on its website” — HIAS.org — “that advises congregations who would like to be involved in supporting refugees. There are a number of different ways,” especially if refugees have settled in areas where the synagogue members live. “There are not a lot of Syrian refugees in the Northeast,” he said. “There are more in the Midwest.”

Nevertheless, he added, “advocacy is very important,” especially since 30 governors already have said that their states will not accept any refugees and Congress is considering cutting out its resettlement program. “Let Congress know we should be taking some action,” he said.

“As Jews, we have such a strong history of benefiting from the largesse of this country,” he said, nevertheless acknowledging past U.S. failures — the United States closed its doors to Jewish immigrants during World War II. “We know what it means to be able to find somewhere safe to land,” he said. Some European nations already have closed their borders, but German Jews have been working actively to help the refugees, who are increasingly vulnerable to scourges such as human traffickers.

“The Syrian refugees are very much at risk,” he said. There are hundreds of thousands of children without parents, people displaced in Syria and abroad, a million in Jordan. They don’t have facilities to take care of them. He mentioned the work of Rabbi Ari Hart, a clergy member at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in New York. Hart, he said, spent some time in Lesbos, a transit point for refugees.

Writing a piece on his experience based on the theme “If not now, when?” Rabbi Hart spoke of what he saw there when he was embedded with a humanitarian non-governmental organization called Israaid. Representing his synagogue, Rabbi Hart said, he went “to support Israaid’s medical and psychosocial relief efforts and bear witness to the largest refugee crisis since WWII.”

Rabbi Hart wrote: “There was no official coordination on the beaches, only teams of international volunteers, working together to help bring people ashore and care for the dead who didn’t make it across. I witnessed the panic of separated family members, the despair of meager possessions lost at sea. We helped warm, clothe, and comfort hundreds of crying, shivering children. Together with volunteers from Denmark and California, I lifted a woman my grandmother’s age out of the bottom of a boat, and then assembled her waterlogged wheelchair so she could be wheeled up the beach.”

Reflecting on his experience, the rabbi asked, “If I am just for myself, what am I? If we begin and end with our own needs, ignoring the suffering of millions of innocents, what do we become? If I, the descendant of refugees who were sent away by country after country, turn my back, what does that make me?”

Jerry and Judi Pitkowski
Jerry and Judi Pitkowski

Judi and Jerry Pitkowsky of Fair Lawn, Rabbi Pitkowsky’s parents, heard about the June 26 project from Rabbi Paskind. They plan to volunteer.

“If you follow the horrific situation of the poor people in Syria, you see that they are pawns in what’s going on,” Mr. Pitkowsky said. “It’s not a small number. The number of those who have been killed is approaching 400,000. And those leaving Syria number in the millions. A tremendous number have been forced to leave their homes, the country they grew up in.”

He added that Israel has taken in hundreds of wounded Syrians and provided them with medical care. “There are stories of children who were injured, and their families brought them to hospitals in Israel,” he said. Later, “they said how welcoming the Israelis were who took care of them.”

While the Pitkowskys contribute time and money to a variety of Jewish organizations, Judi Pitkowsky sees no problem with helping the Syrian refugees. “Doing one does not exclude the other,” she said, noting that the involvement of JDC and HIAS in this effort “is an incredible example for all of us. We live in America in a wider community. We’ve got to reach out to whoever is in the greatest need.”

The couple said the June 26 project “will work on multiple levels — for the individual, who will be doing the right thing; for people who hear or read about it, maybe causing them to think twice, and for those getting the kits.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to help,” Ms. Pitkowsky said. “We are so fortunate. We have so much, and we live in America. Now we have an opportunity to help those who are suffering terribly.”

As a Jew, “looking back at our relatively recent history, you can’t help but feel that you have a responsibility to others,” she said. “If only others had felt that responsibility to us, many of our fellow Jews would have been saved.”

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