More than 25 years ago, in a discussion with her then 17-year-old son about World War II, Elisa Sananman of Westfield wondered aloud which of her neighbors would have risked their lives to save them as Jews. She’ll never forget his incisive response.
“You’ve got the question wrong, mom,” Sananman recalled him saying. “The question is, if the situation were reversed, who would you save?’”
Jews around New Jersey are asking the same of themselves, this time in regard to refugees from wartorn Syria. Many synagogues and community organizations are stepping up to the plate, providing financial and emotional support and material goods. Yet they’ve encountered challenges that threaten to undermine their efforts, including language barriers, cultural differences, and a lack of organization; in recruiting help, they’ve also confronted a general reluctance to get involved.
Some 256 refugees from Syria have been settled in New Jersey since October, according to the U.S. Department of State, more than half of the 458 who have come into the country since then. A majority arrived in New Jersey over the summer months, with 37 in June, 80 in July, and 62 in August; some have settled in Elizabeth, others are in Jersey City and around Camden, and a handful are scattered in other towns.
Her son’s question drove Sananman to find a way to aid refugees, first on behalf of castaways from Kosovo and now for Syrians being resettled in Elizabeth. It hasn’t been easy, she said, but the successes have been worth it. Recently she took part in an interfaith coalition, which included the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, that “adopted” three Syrian families; the coalition helped navigate the college aid process for a child in one of the families who is now attending Union County College on a full scholarship.
“It’s very important for us to help them and say we are a Jewish community helping you,” Sananman said.
Several Jewish groups have joined with refugee resettlement organizations like HIAS and the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Clergy members have taken an active role as well, and already this year more than 200 rabbis have signed onto HIAS’s Welcome Campaign, including 11 from New Jersey. But some have gone much further with aid on the ground.
Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, has been in the forefront of efforts in New Jersey. At a “Christmas” dinner congregants welcomed Syrian refugees to their synagogue for Chinese food on Christmas Day, and later raised $7,000 to sponsor one airfare to the United States for a family still in Syria. Together with Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, they raised $3,000 that enabled 16 children to attend summer camp at the Elizabeth YMCA. Other congregations have undertaken similar efforts, organizing houseware and school supply drives, donating cars and computers, and volunteering to help with tutoring or ESL classes.
Kate McCaffrey, who together with Melina Macall has spearheaded much of Bnai Keshet’s involvement, said she felt the need to act because she was disappointed with the government’s response.
“I was horrified by the refugee crisis — the scale of it and the sense that our country is doing so little,” said McCaffrey. “As individuals we can’t stop the war in Syria or change our refugee policy. But we can certainly reach out and offer compassion to people in our own neighborhood.”
Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, has a very gut-level motivation. “We are a refugee people,” he said. “It pulls at our kishkes.”
But there have been challenges, many coming from the lack of organizational structure. Volunteers feel they are on their own, that no one is offering guidance. In fact, most of the involvement by synagogues and Jewish organizations has been facilitated almost entirely by three women, Huda Shanawani of Short Hills, her daughter Rana, and Wafa Esposito of Summit.
Despite her successes, Sananman admitted it can be frustrating.
“I can’t tell you how long I spent to figure out how to donate a car. If you want the tax deduction for it, you need certain paperwork,” she said. “I had to do a lot of research and call a lot of organizations. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a guidebook, or something on-line that every community could access?”
She added, “I feel strongly that if an agency is going to advocate bringing people here, part of their responsibility is to guide us.”
Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement at HIAS, said that her organization does offer guidance to those who sign on to its advocacy campaigns, offering opportunities for action. She pointed to the NJ synagogues, including Bnai Keshet and Conservative United Synagogue of Hoboken, that sent delegations to Jews for Refugees, a Sept. 14 gathering in New York City, for example.
The cultural differences are another obstacle.
“We went in pretty green and thinking they’ll be receptive and excited,” said Rabbi Ethan Prosnit, assistant rabbi at the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. And while the refugees they encountered seemed receptive, he said, “the language barrier is hard.”
For example, last spring three Westfield congregations, Emanu-El, the First United Methodist Church, and the First Congregational Church, formed an interfaith collation and invited refugees to a welcome picnic. The gesture was nearly undone when some of the refugee families initially refused to attend, fearing that the Christians and Jews would try to convert them. Translators intervened, and the picnic was a success.
There is also the disappointment that nearly all the heavy lifting is on one side of the Orthodox/liberal divide. While Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated liberal congregations have been involved, no Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey are participating in social action efforts so far. According to HIAS’s Rosenn, some Orthodox congregations are increasing efforts to get engaged, especially those affiliated with open Orthodoxy, though she acknowledged, “none on the scale that we see from Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations.”
Some of the reluctance of the Orthodox community to insert themselves into these efforts may come from security concerns, which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made a central issue for his campaign, arguing that immigrants from Muslim countries should not be allowed into the country. In a December op-ed, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, suggested that Syrian refugees pose “a grave danger to all Americans — and especially to American Jews and homosexuals.”
But one NJ rabbi who leads a popular Orthodox congregation, who asked that his name not be used, suggested their lack of action on behalf of Syrian refugees has less to do with ideology and more to do with priorities.
“Other denominations may focus on social action as the core and the attraction of their synagogue mission. While social action is important, for us, hesed begins at home, and there is plenty to do, even beyond our own religious communities,” he said. “The Orthodox community is focused on Torah and mitzva observance as our mission. There are other more important mitzvot that we first focus on…that are very close to home, and those who affiliate with Orthodoxy, I believe, understand that.”
Prosnit of Emanu-El believes he has a moral imperative to act.
“This is a Jewish story,” he said. “We have gone from country to country, persecuted, not able to live our lives.
“If we want to be a 21st-century moral voice, we need to be open to the challenges other people are facing in the surrounding communities. Sure we are committed to helping Jewish communities worldwide. But these people are on our doorstep, going through similar experiences that the Jewish community went through. We need to answer that call.”