The American Jewish Community: Awake and Mobilized

Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach. Photo via Wikipedia.

[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 Jennie Rosenn

In September of 2015, a photograph of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, shocked America. Our eyes were opened, and we woke up to a crisis that has been going on for years.

Over time we learned that refugees are risking their lives and fleeing from many places: The Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Colombia, Sudan, Burma, Ukraine. … The list is long.

We saw photographs of families in rickety boats making the perilous journey to Europe and heard of the thousands of refugees who lost their lives en route. We saw footage of refugees on trains in Europe trying to cross borders – eerily resonant images for Jews.

Just a few generations ago, it was us on those boats being turned away. It was us making the unbearable choice to send our children into the woods or onto trains in those final moments as we were herded into camps. And, of course, thousands of years ago, it was us, the ancient Israelites, who wandered in the desert after fleeing from the Egyptians.

We are a refugee people, and this is why we cannot simply turn away.

The Torah teaches not once, not twice, but according to the Talmud, thirty-six times to welcome the stranger, to protect the stranger, even to love the stranger. Why? “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As American Jews we owe our lives to a time when America was true to its founding values and welcomed us. But we are painfully aware of more shameful times in our nation’s history when we, and others, were turned away and sent back to danger and death.

So, when the American Jewish community awakened to the magnitude of the refugee crisis, we swung into action. The Jewish community has been at the forefront of the voices saying our nation must do more, and is a leader not only in advocating for refugees, but also in creating welcoming communities.

Across the country, hundreds of synagogues are helping to resettle refugee families, and more than 360 have joined the HIAS Welcome Campaign, committing to take action.

Synagogues in places as varied as Albany, Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Houston, St. Louis, and San Francisco are helping newly-arrived families rebuild their lives in the United States.

Thousands of volunteers are tutoring refugees in English, helping them find housing and enroll their children in school, serving as cultural orientation and employment mentors, collecting furniture, and raising funds.

Jewish communities are changing the geography of welcome.

Congregations are also advocating, calling on their members of congress, mayors, and governors to stand up for refugees. Rabbis are exerting their moral leadership. In 2015, when a particularly egregious bill to stop the US Refugee Admissions Program was brought to the Senate, 1200 rabbis signed onto a national letter opposing it. In early 2017, more than 2000 rabbis of all denominations and from 48 states signed HIAS’ National Rabbinic Letter in Support of Refugees, telling elected officials that America must keep its doors open to refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Many rabbis have told us that while they have not previously spoken out on “political issues,” they are compelled to do so now.

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order to halt resettlement, thousands of Jews gathered for HIAS’ National Day of Jewish Action to protest the slamming shut of America’s doors. The action – which took place in 20 cities around the country – garnered extensive coverage in the Jewish and mainstream media and was co-sponsored by dozens of national and local Jewish organizations. Candlelight vigils just took place across America in early June to commemorate the anniversary of the day that the MS St. Louis was sent back to Europe. The Jewish community gathered and called on our elected officials not to make the same mistake of confusing our enemies with the victims of our enemies. Tens of thousands of American Jews are advocating on behalf of refugees, and we have received multiple indications that it is making a difference.

Additionally, hundreds of Jewish communities across the country have hosted speakers and programs about the refugee crisis. Even the Jewish holidays have offered opportunities for deeper understanding, with Hagaddah supplements connecting the plight of today’s refugees to our own Exodus and displays of photographs and stories of refugees in Sukkot.

Finally, many have given tzedakah to help save lives and enable people to find safe haven and begin to rebuild their lives with dignity both in the United States and around the world.

The robust response in the Jewish community is notable for both its depth and diversity. From rabbis to lay leaders, mainstream Jewish organizations to bar and bat mitzvah students, congregations to millennials, American Jews have been mobilizing. While congregation-based activists and volunteers are largely baby boomers and older, people of all generations are joining the movement. More than 500 young Jews in their 20s and 30s attended a recent HIAS program in Washington D.C., and programs co-sponsored with young adult organizations like Repair the World, Avodah, and Moishe House are common. B’nai mitzvah across the country have focused on refugees in their divre torah and organized mitzvah projects. Mainstream Jewish organizations have issued powerful statements in support of America welcoming refugees, including the American Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and the Orthodox Union.

The sum of these parts is nothing short of a powerful, growing American Jewish movement for refugees. It is an all too rare moment in which the Jewish peoplefrom the margins to the mainstreamare taking action as Jews.

Certainly, there have been voices of caution and even objections to Jewish support for refugees. Given the powerful backlash against refugees that was ignited by the terrorist attack in Paris and that gathered momentum throughout the Presidential campaign, this is not surprising. But most American Jews’ fears are quelled when they learn about the extreme vetting already part and parcel of the US refugee admissions process. Others have been moved when reminded that the majority of Americans did not want to welcome Jewish refugees, because of fears about security, infiltration, and unfavorable ideologies. Still others remain uncomfortable, but then ask themselves Who do I want to be as an American and as a Jew? While there remains a small segment of the American Jewish community that is unsupportive, the vast majority understand welcoming refugees as profoundly Jewish.

While the Jewish community is hardly alone in these efforts and participates in, and even leads, multi-faith initiatives and coalitions, we also have a unique role to play. Our advocacy has particular power as we bring not only our religious values, but also our history as Jews and, more specifically, as American Jews. Furthermore, our elected officials, sadly, do not expect that American Jews will be on the front lines of advocating for Muslims and when we are, they take notice.Our challenge in the coming months and years is to have staying power and commit to the long road ahead. We must not get distracted or weary or discouraged or simply go back to sleep. We are a people who knows what it means to stand strong, to endure, and to not give up; we know that the arc of history is long.

This, in fact, is a historic moment. Never before have we, a refugee people, not been refugees ourselves, but instead been in a position to change the future for today’s refugees. We have awakened, and now it is time to honor our history, live out our values, and act. Nothing less than the future of human life and the future of our nation depend on it. This is a moment for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the Vice President for Community Engagement at HIAS. She previously served as Program Director for Jewish Life and Values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and as Rabbi at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.