Area Jewish organizations are responding to Europe’s migrant crisis, with High Holy Day sermons by rabbis, fund-raising campaigns, and pledges of support for those helping resettle the more than 340,000 migrants, many of them refugees, who have crossed over to Europe from the Middle East this year.
At Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, members gathered before Rosh Hashana services for a photo with a sign that read “Montclair Welcomes Refugees.” The photo was inspired by MoveOn.Org’s call to action, dubbed “America Welcomes,” which urges the U.S. government to raise the number of refugees admitted into the United States from wartorn Syria.
Rabbi David Greenstein, who organized the photo, called it “a small gesture that can help expand our efforts to assist the many thousands of refugees who are in immediate need of food and shelter.”
Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit has committed to helping “at least one” refugee family adjust to life in the United States “once more Syrian refugees are being settled” here, according to Rabbi Hannah Orden.
She said the idea came from her congregants. They will also respond as a community to a call from HIAS, the Jewish-run resettlement agency, for local volunteers to work with refugees and asylum seekers.
Before the shofar was blown during Rosh Hashana services, Orden spoke about the linkage she sees between the ritual and the refugee crisis. She used a reading that was sent out by HIAS.
“So many people were talking about the photo of Aylan Kurdi as a wakeup call,” she said, referring to the three-year-old Syrian boy whose death in transit galvanized world reaction to the crisis. “I wanted to connect that with the shofar calling us to pay attention.”
Greenstein also urged members to support HIAS efforts and sign its petition urging President Barack Obama to resettle in the United States 100,000 of the “most vulnerable Syrian refugees.” Greenstein read a prayer during shofar blowing and a poem the previous Shabbat to raise awareness of and empathy for the refugees.
In addition to HIAS, other organizations addressing the issue include the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement and the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees (part of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief), which has 49 member organizations and is coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (HIAS is a member agency).
The American Jewish Committee has donated funds and dispatched staff to Greece to support a relief effort led by IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian aid agency, to assist Syrian refugees.
Jewish federations have opened mailboxes for donations that will go to the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees. Among them was the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ which also issued a statement on Sept. 7 saying it “believes there needs to be an urgent international response to address the crisis of the millions of Syrian refugees who are trying to reach safe haven. Where a single human being suffers, we all suffer.” Additionally, the GMW federation’s Community Relations Committee invited community leaders and synagogues to participate in HIAS efforts, prompting many of the synagogues’ engagement on the topic.
RAC has posted a FAQ on the issue on its website, as well as a “Prayer for Righteous Anger” from the new Reform movement Mahzor.
Compelled to speak
After seeing that photo of Aylan Kurdi, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange scrapped the sermon he had prepared for the first day of Rosh Hashana.
“Maybe I’ll use it some other time,” he told the congregation.
Instead, he focused on the refugee crisis. “I felt the urgency of the news over this situation and the lack of response around the world, especially from faith-based communities — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — and that compelled me to speak about this,” he told NJJN. “Just as, in the Torah reading, Hagar and Ishmael sought refuge, and just as our ancestors sought refuge throughout Jewish history, these 11 million Syrians seek refuge, and we have a responsibility to respond.”
He urged Beth El congregants to sign the HIAS petition and get involved in visiting with asylum seekers in detention centers, and encouraged community members to “adopt” refugees when they are resettled in the area.
For Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, it’s personal. His father was a refugee who was helped by HIAS, he told NJJN. Born in Germany, his father escaped to Shanghai with his parents in 1940; they went to San Francisco in 1948.
“We who have known the pain of having the world turn a blind eye on us when we were refugees can do nothing less,” he said. “Our history and our tradition compel us to do what we can in the face of this humanitarian crisis.” He has shared information from HIAS and RAC with the congregation.
Other congregations, including Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, have announced general support for the refugees and a willingness to take action with others. “We can’t stand idly by and just watch the crisis,” said Rabbi George Nudell of Beth Israel.
HIAS and its allies have insisted that concerns about the Muslim and Arab identity of the refugees are misplaced. Earlier this month, HIAS president Mark Hetfield held a conference call with American-Jewish organizational officials to talk about his agency’s decision to join with Arab-American leaders in critiquing U.S. policies that limit the number of refugees settled in the United States to about 70,000 per year.
Nudell dismissed the idea that lifting the quotas will invite terrorism.
“We have historically heard reservations about other immigrant groups that border on what we are hearing now: ‘What if there are terrorists among them?’
“Do we really think terrorists are going to risk a shaky boat trip and walk by foot across Europe? They will infiltrate an easier way!”
And as a rabbi, Nudell added, it’s his responsibility to “highlight the Jewish imperative to act when faced with a humanitarian crisis, taught through rabbinic sources.”
He concluded, “We must respond.”