‘We were strangers once’

‘We were strangers once’

Teaneck rabbi considers plight of Syrian refugees in a Jewish context

A Syrian refugee is treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, in northern Israel. (Ziv Medical Center)
A Syrian refugee is treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, in northern Israel. (Ziv Medical Center)

As we sit around the Passover table, enjoying the blessings of freedom and prosperity, we read the story of our people’s redemption from slavery. Year after year, we teach our children about the hardships our people endured, hoping this will stimulate their gratitude and appreciation for the good fortune we enjoy today.

But if Passover provides the perfect teaching moment for these lessons, it also offers fertile ground for sensitizing all seder participants to the plight of others — especially those still suffering persecution, hunger, and homelessness.

Calls to action on behalf of others are not new to our community. Those of us who remember the atrocities in Cambodia in 1980 also will remember Elie Wiesel’s words. Asked why he had visited that nation — where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was killing millions of innocent civilians — Wiesel replied, “While I am not a representative of any group, [I felt that] as a Jew, I had to be there and see firsthand what is happening, and whether I could be of any help.”

Indeed, said Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, religious leader of the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, the issue of outreach raises a very important question: “What does ‘never again’ mean when it’s not us being attacked?”

Each year, such worthy organizations as MAZON and the American Jewish World Service take that sentiment to heart, sending out readings and other resources that suggest ways that Jews can help people in need, whether through advocacy or by direct action.

Last Shabbat, a working committee at Beth Sholom met to discuss the plight of Syrian refugees, a group whose wanderings, statelessness, and physical suffering resonate all too well with the Jewish people.

“A group in the synagogue approached me a few months ago wanting to have some sort of synagogue response to the Syrian refugee crisis,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We’ve been meeting on a regular basis, formulating ideas and thinking of adult education possibilities.

“Early on, we recognized that connecting the crisis to Passover was a natural fit and a wonderful vehicle for educating the synagogue and community about these ideas,” he said. “The seder asks us to use our imagination in a powerful way. We’re commanded to understand ourselves and to see ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt. It’s a central piece of the Magid section.

“It’s a beautiful idea, like on Friday night, when we stand up and turn around at the end of ‘L’cha Dodi’ to see the Sabbath queen. We take ourselves out of our own bodies. What we are pushing for is the idea that the central themes of the haggadah should not remain only in our imagination.

“If we are thinking about what it is to be free, understanding ourselves in this story and not just retelling it, then how do we personalize these themes today? How do we make them powerful enough to understand? We’re as free as we can be here in Bergen County, and powerful enough to bring social justice into a seder to cry out for a world that is not what it should be.

“The Passover story is such a powerful story for the western world because it’s the first story where the weak overwhelm the mighty. Before Passover, we didn’t know that was possible.”

Rabbi Pitkowsky said that four issues in particular have animated his thinking this year. First, he will use the opportunity of Passover to reflect on the situation of Syrian refugees.

Second, as a national board member of MAZON, he will pay particular attention to the words of “halach ma’anya,” which invite all who are hungry to come and eat. “Have we done everything we can as a community to help those who are hungry?” he mused. “I would love to be able to say yes.”

Third, making note of the work of Rabbi Debra Orenstein, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, and the organization Free the Slaves, he will think about the issue of human slavery.

And fourth, referencing the reading “Vehi She’amda,” declaring that in every generation enemies rise up to destroy us, he will pray especially for the safety and security of the state of Israel.

Rabbi Pitkowsky acknowledged that the issue of Syrian refugees is complex, but suggested that “Jews have a particular sensitivity to what it means to run away from those who threaten our families and homes. American Jews are privileged to live in the most Jewishly friendly environment the Jews have ever lived in.

“We know what it is to be turned away at the border, and we know what it is to be welcomed.”

On the issue of security, he pointed out that those who come to this country as refugees “are the most vetted group of people who enter the country,” undergoing investigation for 18 months to 2 years, “more than for a student visa or work visa. If someone thinks that’s not enough, they should take it up with the government.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky

Rabbi Pitkowsky also acknowledged that the state of Syria has been unremittingly hostile to Israel, and that he has “no desire to help the government. That being said, it doesn’t mean that we, as human beings, should not help individuals who haven’t given us reason to believe they are anti-Semitic themselves.” In fact, he added, “For years, the state of Israel has been helping Syrian citizens on the border with Israel, setting up field hospitals and bringing some of the wounded in for advanced medical treatment. There are incredible acts of tzedakah.”

Does he worry that some refugees may harbor deep anti-western sentiments?

“Of course,” he said, “but they’ll be thoroughly vetted.”

He stressed that the working committee looking at the issue of Syrian refugees “is not representing the synagogue. We have no official mandate. We’ll figure it out.

“There’s a great desire to help in the Jewish community, but it’s not so easy to help individual people. The number of individual Syrian refugees in our area is quite small. The best way to help them is to donate money to a large organization such as HIAS,” which deals with resettlement, “or to donate to communities in direct contact with large numbers of refugees.”

In that context, he noted that some synagogues in Canada are engaged directly in the issue because of “different government regulation of refugees, so they can raise money to support actual families.” In addition, he said, some Conservative/Masorti synagogues in Germany are providing a good deal of support to individual refugees. “Sponsoring a family won’t happen here,” he said. “Our advice is to donate money to those causes.”

Still, he said, some people raise the economic issue, asking how we know who actually is fleeing danger and who is just looking for a better life. “There’s no way to determine that,” he said, adding that he hopes government organizations have a way of figuring that out. “Still,” he said, “it shouldn’t paralyze us or prevent us” from taking action.

At its meeting, the Beth Sholom working committee disseminated resources discussing the issue, culled from the sites of groups like HIAS and the International Rescue Committee. “We hope to raise people’s consciousness, to raise questions and have people talk about them at the seder, without pretending we have the answers,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said.

“We hope they will engage with the issue,” and that they will emerge with the desire to be more welcoming and bring more refugees here. “The overriding goal is for people not to ignore the issue, and it’s easy to ignore it in our complicated, busy lives,” he said.

Rabbi Pitkowsky said he supports the idea of forming a social justice committee in the synagogue. “We already have a social action committee, which is very active — doing food collections and providing volunteers and staffing for dinners at shelters,” he said. “But it’s not the same thing as a social justice committee that works toward larger goals.” Toward that end, he will speak with friends who have established such groups, including Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder of Ikar in Los Angeles.

read more: