Combining a Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas Day with the mitzva of welcoming the stranger, some 80 congregants of Bnai Keshet in Montclair shared Shabbat dinner on Dec. 25 with 50 Muslim refugees from Syria.
“It only happened because good people kept saying we have to do something,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, who contacted HIAS, the Jewish-run immigrant aid organization in New York. It connected his Reconstructionist synagogue with Syrian families who have relocated to Elizabeth and Paterson.
The Syrians were resettled over the past two years with the aid of the International Rescue Committee, which connected HIAS and Bnai Keshet with Rana Shanawani, a woman of Syrian descent who lives in Short Hills.
Shanawani arranged the guests’ transportation to Montclair and provided Arabic and English translation of remarks and greetings at the event. All the guests wore name tags in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
The food, supplied by Woxx, a kosher Asian restaurant in West Orange, included vegetarian options.
Tepperman began the observance by lighting candles and blessing the hallah and grape juice. “Christmas can be a lonely day for Jews in the U.S.,” Tepperman told the audience, but “we have developed our own traditions, like eating Chinese food, to help us feel at home.”
In a report on the event, Tepperman wrote that throughout dinner children played, and “our guests shared with us their gratitude and their hopes to find work.”
He also shared with the audience his own family’s history.
“My grandfather came to America when he was 14 and his sister was 16,” Tepperman wrote. “They had to pay someone to smuggle them across the borders of Russia and Ukraine. They told us stories about being told by the smuggler not to look back because if they looked back they might be shot. The border guards were ordered not to shoot people in the back.”
Tepperman said he told the guests “that I saw reflections of our own stories in them. That if they were to ask almost any Jewish person they met, they would hear a story of a parent or grandparent who had fled danger to come to the U.S. That most had arrived penniless.
“As my own voice caught, I looked at the interpreter, a first-generation Syrian immigrant herself, who had stopped speaking because she was crying. She said, ‘I am sorry but I can’t help it.’”
At the end of the evening a Syrian man responded through the interpreter. “I am so grateful to be here. I want my children to know that all the sons of Abraham are our brothers,” he said. “This is not something my children could have experienced in Syria, but they saw it today in this synagogue.”
In an interview a few days after the event, Tepperman said he disagreed with those who say America shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees — fleeing a brutal civil war at home — because terrorists may have infiltrated their ranks.
“America and all countries have a responsibility to welcome refugees, and I think in a world as globalized as it is today, we can’t have open Internet and open commerce without being equally open to welcoming people who are in political or other danger,” he told NJ Jewish News.
“That is rhetoric, that is xenophobic, and from a Jewish point of view, our tradition says over and over again to not only welcome but love the stranger, because we were strangers and have an obligation to do whatever we can for people in need.”
Tepperman said, “It is also a gift for Jews to offer this kind of hope to Muslims, given much of the stories that exist about Jewish-Muslim relations in the world. This is an opportunity to offer a helping hand to a community with whom we want to develop positive relationships.”