Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer grew up hearing about HIAS — originally founded, as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Her best friend’s father “was brought to this country from Cuba by HIAS,” she told NJJN, and the organization’s mission also resonated with her because of the stories of immigrants in her own family — like her great-grandmother, for whom she is named, who fled pogroms in Russia and then survived the tragic 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. As director of education for community engagement at HIAS, said Meyer, “I really see the work I do as her namesake as honoring her legacy.”
Meyer will speak after Shabbat morning services at Neve Shalom in Metuchen on Sept. 22, initiating “Gesher” — “Bridge” in Hebrew — a series of programs at the synagogue on immigrants and refugees. The program was conceived by Judy Richman of Highland Park and Julie Hersch of Edison, with Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Eric Rosin.
Hersch said she and Richman wanted “to educate our shul about current refugee issues, but through a Jewish lens.” Their aim was to deepen congregants’ understanding of their eclectic local community, home to people of “so many different religions,” and promote the idea that “we need to be more involved with our community in welcoming and knowing each other.”
Richman agreed, saying, “Gesher is our reaching out into the larger refugee and immigrant community with a bridge, in that time-honored Jewish way of educating ourselves.” In doing so, the organizers hope people “take the actions that they determine are right” so that they can reach out themselves.
For Rosin, the overall goal is “to start a conversation in our community about where we stand in relation to all the things we’re reading about — the experience of this generation’s immigrants and the people looking for safety and security and how that interacts with our own stories and our families’ stories.”
The series will connect to the Jewish calendar,
with the first program right before Sukkot, a holiday that includes a focus on the transience of life. “It seems appropriate before we go into the sukkah,” Rosin said, “to talk about others who have impermanence.”
In her talk, Meyer will introduce the scale and scope of the global refugee crisis and look at texts that underscore the Jewish mandate to welcome the stranger.
In a conversation with NJJN, she suggested that HIAS itself bridges the Jewish and broader immigrant worlds. Founded in 1881 in New York to support Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe by offering English lessons, job training, and shelter, at the turn of the 21st century HIAS turned its efforts toward “helping refugees regardless of faith or ethnicity.” Meyer’s team sits at the crux of this transition and is focused in part on “bringing the work of HIAS back to the forefront of the Jewish community’s mind.”
Today the organization continues to assist immigrants, Meyer said, “not because they’re Jewish, but because we’re Jewish.”
Despite increasing awareness of the complex issues that have enveloped immigration over the last 18 months, Meyer said, “People don’t necessarily realize the scope and magnitude and how long it’s been going on.” In fact, she said, the number of refugees and displaced people across the world has grown to 68 million.
Also important to understand, Meyer said, is that as a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the United States has responsibilities to refugees — as defined in that treaty.
Refugees, according to the convention, are people outside the country of their nationality who, because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” — which, she said, includes LGBTQ individuals — are “unable or unwilling to to return to their home country.”
Much of what is happening politically today, Meyer said, “is based on a misunderstanding of our legal responsibilities.” Asylum-seekers, she noted, have a lawful right to ask for refuge. “But this administration, and particularly the attorney general, is whittling away our asylum system.” For example, women who experienced domestic violence were considered members of a social group who feared for their safety and so were legally entitled to apply for asylum.
But, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, being a member of that group is no longer adequate grounds for asylum; this stance, Meyer said, “puts enormous numbers of women at risk.”
Despite “tremendous security protections” and the fact that “no major attack was perpetrated by anyone who came into the country through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, our resettlement program,” according to Meyer, President Donald Trump has reduced the highest number of refugees who can enter the United States from 110,000 at the start of his term to 45,000 today, and, she added, “likely we won’t meet half that number.”
“Each of these actions alone would be devastating,” Meyer said, but together, they are “dismantling a long history of welcome in this country. From my perspective as a rabbi, that is not only un-Jewish but also un-American.”
The second program in the series, on Sunday, Dec. 2, is “Welcome to America,” a concert organized by Neve Shalom’s Hazzan Sheldon Levin featuring Makhelat Hamercaz: Jewish Choir of Central NJ, which he co-conducts with Cantor Anna West Ott, together with a Chinese choir and an Indonesian percussion group. Proceeds will go to an organization supporting immigrants.
At a third program, planned for Wednesday, April 3, just before Passover, Richman said “the entire shul community will have the opportunity to share some of our own stories and listen to the stories of refugees and immigrants from other communities.”
The idea, said Rosin, is “to personalize the story around Passover to stress that progression of coming from a place of oppression to seeking a place of
The committee planning the synagogue’s yearly book and author event, currently scheduled for Sunday, March 31, is also exploring the possibility of having the congregation read a book focused on the immigrant experience. Another Gesher plan in the works is a congregational trip to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.
The guiding principle behind Gesher, Rosin said, is “to take our stories and universalize them and take what the Jewish people have learned and apply it to the world around us. Our hope is that we will use this as a bridge to form relationships with not only other synagogues, but other communities in our geographic area.”
NJJN bureau chief Debra Rubin contributed to this story.