Our Responsibility as Jews for Refugees in the 21st Century: the view from a British-based Humanitarian Charity

Photo credit: World Jewish Relief

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Rebecca Singer

The Jewish history of being both migrants and refugees in a new land is as old as our people itself. As such, it’s impossible to separate the Jewish response to refugees from our own collective history and memory. The experience of being a migrant or refugee, when traced back, is in the lifeblood of most people within the British Jewish community. My organization, World Jewish Relief, like the wider community, also has a profound and intrinsic connection to refugees.

Established as the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF), World Jewish Relief was formed after the Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. It brought together many leading British Jews, including Simon Marks who founded the retail giant Marks and Spencer’s and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State of Israel.

They raised the enormous sum of £250,000, the equivalent of £16.8 million in today’s sterling, to support Jewish refugees trying to leave Germany and Austria. They lobbied the British government to allow Jews fleeing war and persecution into the UK. In November 1938, when the devastation of Kristallnacht was felt across Germany, nearly 10,000 children, predominantly Jewish, were permitted to enter the UK on the Kindertransport, spearheaded by World Jewish Relief. It’s a story frequently recounted: children leaving their parents and travelling by train and ferry to Liverpool Street Station to meet their volunteer foster parents, clutching only their most cherished possessions.

World Jewish Relief was also fundamental in bringing to the UK 732 orphaned concentration camp survivors known as ‘The Boys’ and helping them to build a life for themselves in the UK. These people – whether from the Kindertransport, one of the Boys or one of the tens of thousands of others who received our help before, during and after World War II, have grown up to love Britain and richly contribute towards it.

In September 2015, as the refugee crisis intensified, World Jewish Relief launched its second emergency appeal for Syrian refugees. At the time, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote a piece in which he discussed the moral and biblical imperative to love the stranger because you were once strangers. Referring to the refugee crisis, he said that “a bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future.”

Jewish memory shapes our morality. When the pictures of a little boy Alan Kurdi, washed up lifeless on a beach, hit the news in September 2015, as waves of refugees and migrants were crossing the Mediterranean, the British Jewish community was jolted into action.

The response to World Jewish Relief’s Refugee Crisis Emergency Appeal was overwhelming and has now raised more than $1.3m. The appeal was noteworthy because the money didn’t come in large donations from a small number of wealthy donors, but in small amounts from thousands of members of the Jewish community who felt morally compelled to do something.

The money was initially spent on aiding refugees who had fled war zones and had ended up in Turkey or Greece. From emergency first aid, medical care and supermarket vouchers for those arriving on Lesbos to winter blankets, sleeping bags, warm coats and school stationary for children on the Turkish-Syrian border. World Jewish Relief is currently providing exceptionally vulnerable unaccompanied minors in Greece with legal, social and psychological support.

Historically, World Jewish Relief has not worked in the UK, but when the government announced that it would allow 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees to be resettled in Britain, the international crisis became a domestic issue.

Given our experience assisting Jewish immigrants before, during and after the war, we know that refugees need intensive support once they have been resettled in order to gain sustainable employment and support themselves in the long term.

World Jewish Relief has committed to helping 1,000 of those 20,000 arriving in the UK by launching a unique Livelihood Programme. The pilot year in Bradford in north east England, is just coming to an end and offers the refugees psychological, vocational, social and language support with the aim of helping them secure paid employment.

The 50 people who have completed the course have benefited from the opportunity to improve their English language skills to a sufficient level for employment, gain vocational training and receive assistance when applying for work experience and jobs. Eleven are now fully employed and another eleven have secured work placements. The programme is due to be rolled out across the region this year as we work to ensure 1,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees get the chance for a fresh start in their new home.

The Talmud (Shavuot 39a) tells us that all Jews are responsible for one another but it also guides us morally to appreciate the responsibility we have beyond our own community. It is the Jewish value of ‘darchei shalom,’ the paths of peace (Gittin 61a) that guides our work and commits us to assisting refugees regardless of race, creed or nationality. We have the experience and the expertise to make a difference to refugees arriving in Europe today and we are privileged to have the support of the British Jewish community behind us.

Rebecca Singer is World Jewish Relief’s communications officer. She holds responsibility for the organisation’s synagogue engagement, working with Rabbis and synagogue communities across the UK to raise awareness of the charity’s history and current work in the Former Soviet Union and around the world, including the programme supporting Syrian Refugees in the UK.