By Michael L. Feshbach and Karen Green
There are times when we are, it seems, energy in search of a cause. We “want,” but we lack a “what.” But there are moments in time when everything seems to flow together, when different forces flow together and the moral moment calls and the need to act is more than obvious; rather, it becomes almost unavoidable. It is moments such as these – the fight for marriage equality, a few years ago, and the cause of refugees now – which not only make a difference for others, they also serve to bring our community together.
I remember a textbook used in many Reform synagogue religious schools called Searching the Prophets for Values. Satirical reaction to the book called it, instead: “Searching the Values for Prophets,” jokingly accusing us of placing our political values front and center, and only afterwards looking for religious validation.
Maybe – maybe – this was a fair call in some cases. In our response to the refugee crisis, however, the values of our tradition, command and compel our involvement, loudly and clearly. Obvious examples include:
- Hachnasat Or’chim: welcoming guests.
- V’ahavta et HaGer: loving the stranger.
- Hav’a’at Shalom Bein Adam L’Chaveiro: working to bring about peace between people.
But there are other threads of text and tradition at work here as well. We feel called, and moved, by the following insights and experiences:
- Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2): one commandment leads to another.
Overwhelmed by the depth of problems around us, unable to wave a magic wand and solve anything easily, we are at risk of despair. How can we make a difference in the world? In baseball, great hitters get out of a slump by concentrating on hitting singles. By doing one thing, by tackling one problem, by helping one family, we feel movement, and action, and hope. It is our formula to ght frustration: just do the right thing, and more will follow.
- Al T’hiyu Kh’Avadim HaM’shamshim et HaRav Al M’nat L’Kabel Pras; do not be like those who serve in order to receive a reward. (Pirkei Avot 1:3).
We step into this work out of a sense of service. It is meant to address the needs of others. But, as is the case of true altruism, of selfless acts, in the end we find… we get so much more out of it than we could have imagined. Our own growth, our understanding, our sense of connection and meaning and purpose is, for most of us, more than worth the effort, the time, the resources we put in. Found in a Chinese fortune cookie: “If you continually give, you will continually receive.”
- Da Lifnei Mi Atta Omeid; Know Before Whom You Stand. (based on the Talmud, Berachot 28b).
We think these words apply not only to a deity we may feel but cannot see, but to the real people before us, whose faces we see and whose pain we come to feel and whose stories we take into our hearts. Social science research and the experience of our own lives teach us: when you come to know the “other” as a human being, the earth shakes and the world changes. Prejudice against Jews, against blacks, against gays all diminish… when someone comes to know real human beings who defy the stereotypes with which we may have been raised. Make a connection, build a bridge and walls fall down. Many of us have never been close with a Muslim family before. And this family we work with… they had never even met a Jew… before they found us, waiting at the airport, filling their apartment, bringing them to their new home.
In this crisis, we don’t have to look long or hard for Jewish values to jump out at us. For us, the question is not why do we do this work. It is this: how can we not?
2. View from the Congregation – Karen Green, Co-chair Refugee Response Team
During the High Holy days of 2015, Rabbi Feshbach called on Temple Shalom to support Syrian refugees. He taught that the injunction to welcome the stranger is commanded thirty six times – more than any other in the Bible. He invited a number of us to organize, knowing our passion for the cause. Being called by the Rabbi to repair (even a miniscule corner) of the world was an honor. We began the effort as strangers to the refugee infrastructure. We familiarized ourselves with the US government’s 18 month (and 19 agencies!) vetting process to pitch sponsoring a family to the synagogue board and respond to congregants’ concerns, resulting in the board’s unanimous vote of support. Believing in HIAS’ purpose to resettle refugees “not because they are Jewish but because we are Jewish,” we hoped to resettle a family through HIAS. However, for efficiency’s sake, the US government authorizes only two or three of the nine resettlement agencies to work in any given metropolitan area. Thus, mentored by Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (CCPC), which welcomed a family before us, our Jewish synagogue partnered with Lutheran Social Services to welcome a Muslim family, a genuinely interfaith endeavor!
Within the shul, our team began as strangers as well, drawn together solely by Temple membership and the impulse to assist refugees. Soon we were spending hours discussing concerns vital to this family of new Americans. Where should they be housed? How should we spend our limited funds to assist? What systems should we use to organize dozens of volunteers to furnish the apartment, teach English, enroll the kids in school, search for jobs, learn the community, drive six people around, and meet ongoing – and emergency – healthcare needs? We constantly struggled to balance gifts of compassion with the family’s need to become self-sufficient. In the process, we plumbed our own backgrounds and values as well as those of fellow volunteers’. Through refugee work, I am less a stranger at shul. With these wonderful people, and in this meaningful work, I found my spiritual home.
As one of the first congregations in the region to cosponsor Syrian refugees, Temple Shalom became an accidental leader. As the refugee crisis intensified, and President Trump issued the executive order colloquially known as the “Muslim ban,” more faith congregations galvanized to sponsor families. We are consulted frequently and interviewed often by the media. We found myriad ways to partner with HIAS as a Welcome Campaign congregation, speaking at gatherings large and small about our experience and advocating for humane refugee policy. Our entire Tikkun Olam focus expanded, enriched by a new-found focus on refugees. We now have a rapid response crew ready to protest anti-refugee action at a moment’s notice. We’re exploring how we might support the inter-faith sanctuary movement.
Speaking up and acting in an atmosphere of increasing intolerance provides purpose and fortitude, individually and collectively, in this difficult time.
Perhaps most significantly, our Syrian family is indeed family for many of us. Walking alongside them through the crucible of adjusting to a new life, language and livelihood has forged unbreakable bonds. Here’s how it happened for me: Mom sat ashen as she listened to her young children wail as each received five vaccines in a row. I asked “How are you doing?” She began to weep saying, “I miss my sisters for this.” She had fled from war, lived for four years as a refugee in Jordan with her family, immigrated to a new country, and still had the emotional reserves to deeply feel her children’s passing pain. We joined hands, “I don’t have a sister,” I said, “would you be my sister?” And so we became sisters, and always will be; strangers no more.
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach served as Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD from 2001-2017. In the summer of 2017 he moved to the United States Virgin Islands, where he now serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. His writing, articles and blog posts can be found at www.michaelfeshbach.net.
Karen Green is a consultant who works with nonprofit boards (in the Jewish world including synagogues, historical societies and family foundations) to improve organizational governance. She serves on the national boards of HIAS and Art & Remembrance.