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South Orange synagogues welcome refugee family
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South Orange synagogues welcome refugee family

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Welcome bags for each of the three children. 
Welcome bags for each of the three children. 

In the late afternoon of Jan. 17, a small group of New Jerseyans waited at Newark Liberty International Airport to welcome five people they had never met. Hours after the plane had landed, the travelers — a mother, father, and their three daughters — refugees from war-torn Syria, finally emerged. 

It was just 10 days before President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning all refugees from Syria.

The locals, members of three South Orange synagogues, escorted the family to their new home, an apartment on the second floor of a pretty house on a quiet street in Maplewood. The youngest, age 6, loved her toys and room, and the older girls, ages 16 and 20, couldn’t contain their excitement over their L-shaped bunk beds. At the family’s insistence, their new friends joined the immigrants for the first meal in their home, provided by the South Orange restaurant, Felafally Yours.

Resettling these immigrants is a joint effort of Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation, all in South Orange, in partnership with Church World Service. Each of the three congregations had separate plans to sponsor refugees, but they started working together first last spring and again this fall to combat several anti-Semitic incidents in the local middle school. In early December, they announced that together they would adopt a Syrian refugee family. 

Trump’s executive order, issued on Friday, Jan. 27, indefinitely bans Syrian refugees from entering the United States, and suspends refugees from six other countries for the next four months. The order, which threw into question the future of some refugees already en route to the United States and others within days of receiving approval, led to protests at airports around the country, including Kennedy and Newark airports, as well as at local detention centers, where arriving immigrants are held until their status is determined. 

Rabbi Dan Cohen of Sharey Tefilo-Israel, who protested at the detention center in Elizabeth on Jan. 29, said of the Syrian family who recently arrived, “I am grateful we were able to welcome them here when we did.” He added, “I am heartbroken for the countless other Syrian refugees who were ready to begin anew life and, for now at least, are not able.” 

Currently the family is unavailable to speak with the media and their names and images have been omitted from this story to protect their identities.  

Despite the ban, the synagogues’ ultimate goal, according to Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Beth El, is to resettle “as many refugee families as possible in our community.” Olitzky participated in the protests at Newark airport, along with Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple Bnai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and other community leaders. Since taking on this project, the three synagogues have raised more than $35,000 through a GOFUNDME campaign toward a goal of $75,000, which, pending legal challenges to Trump’s executive order, they hope will help them resettle at least two additional refugee families by this spring. 

“There was clearly something powerful and impactful about the town synagogues working together in ways that we have not previously,” said Rabbi Cohen. “I find something powerful in the statement that we, not just as individual synagogues, but we as a Jewish community, are coming together to do something this important. Our values tell us to welcome the stranger and to extend a hand to those who are most vulnerable in society and we, as a community, are acting on it.”  

Said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom, “Ritual, prayer and study mean little if they don’t lead to action.” 

The dollar amount needed to resettle a family was set after a series of conversations among experts in the field, and reflect a kind of “guesstimate,” said Liba Beyer, who sits on the steering committee for the undertaking; the committee is comprised of two members from each synagogue, selected for their expertise in a particular area. 

Beyer, senior director for public advocacy at Human Rights Watch, coordinated housing for the family and was among the small group that met them at the airport. In a text message to NJJN, she wrote, “They were definitely in such shock and overwhelmed [and] each one cried at some point.” 

Sheryl Harpel, a member of the synagogues’ steering committee, was also there to greet the family. “There were instant hugs and kisses.” She said she and the mother cried “happy tears” as they walked arm-in-arm through the airport.

All the preparation for the family’s arrival had been completed in the span of just over a month. More than 150 people, mostly from the three synagogues but also from the broader South Orange-Maplewood community, had worked feverishly, donating not only their time but also everything they would need. Two days before the family’s arrival, their apartment had been rented by the synagogues and was nearly ready for move-in. Over time, the family is expected to take over paying the rent on an incremental basis.

Volunteers had come in shifts throughout the previous few days to set up the furniture, hang curtains, make the beds (complete with duvets and throw pillows), and neatly fold and store clothing, including jeans, sweaters, scarves, and winter boots. They stocked the bathroom shelves with shampoo and moisturizer, soap and shaving cream, and the kitchen with dishes and paper towels. Welcome bags were prepared for all three children and there were bins full of toys for the 6-year-old. A packet of information about living in Maplewood — that would soon be translated into Arabic — sat on the dining room table. They even added little details that make a house a home, like hanging silver stars from the girls’ bedroom ceiling and a canvas owl print on the wall, and in the hallway a wooden plaque that reads “Love you more.”   

Others were involved. A “welcome team” of students, faculty, and administration at Columbia High School worked together so that the 16-year-old would have a good first day. A social services team of synagogue members met with the parents so they would have whatever assistance they need, and a South Orange pediatrician arranged for the children’s medical care. Financial professionals will work with the parents so they can gain financial literacy and independence.

“Beyond raising money and setting up the apartment and bringing food, we are setting up a whole support structure,” said Harpel. “Our goal is for them to be successful, happy, and independent, because that’s the only way this will work long-term…We are trying to create a structure that will help this family, but also the next, so we are not starting from scratch again.”

The synagogues chose to partner with Church World Service (CWS) because of its willingness to work with community organizations and its comprehensive approach to settlement: CWS generally provides a dedicated caseworker, housing, furniture, clothing, food, and sets up medical appointments, as well as English as a second language access, school registration, transportation, job and cultural orientation, and skills training. In this family’s case, the synagogues have taken on these tasks, with guidance from CWS. 

While this Syrian family was the first to be settled in Maplewood, there is a growing network of Syrian refugees in New Jersey. Close to 300 were settled in New Jersey, many in Elizabeth, between October 2015 and September 2016, and 73 between October and December 2016, according to the U.S. Department of State. 

Although the synagogues considered finding an apartment in other parts of New Jersey, like Elizabeth or Paterson that have large Syrian refugee communities, Olitzky said, “We felt it was important to have this family a part of our community — so that we could help them and develop relationships with them, as if they are an honorary member of our congregations.”

In fact, Harpel pointed out that their efforts on behalf of the refugees have helped them forge relationships across Maplewood and South Orange, “We thought we were just helping a family, but I didn’t realize it would also provide healing for our own community.” 

Harpel said the initiative has enabled her to deepen relationships with Muslims such as the mother of one of her daughter’s friends. “I’m learning about the traditions in the mosque and personal observance, not something I would have asked about. This has given us a reason to talk about things we normally stay away from. Like, ‘Hey, do you go to a mosque? Which is the right one for this family? What’s the difference between mosques? What kind of programs do they have there?’ And people in the Muslim community are surprised and just delighted we are doing this, and they are eager to help. 

“This has given all of us a reason to be hopeful.”

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