On a recent Saturday morning in March, the school wing at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield was humming with activity. While Shabbat services were going on in the sanctuary downstairs, volunteers from the congregation, nearby churches, and the surrounding community set up classrooms; put out bagels and donuts, juice boxes and coffee; and assembled “goody bags” with Arabic-English workbooks, sanitary napkins, and other items. Families began arriving around 9:45 a.m., driven by volunteers who had picked them up from their homes, mostly in Elizabeth but also in Roselle and Bloomfield.
So much legwork might seem out of place for a regular Shabbat crowd at a suburban synagogue. But this is the Westfield Fun Club, a weekly program Emanu-El hosts for 18 refugee families living nearby.
The Westfield Fun Club, held at the synagogue most Saturdays from 10 a.m. until noon, is a lifeline for the new families. In this relaxed environment they are able to make friends with people who speak their mother tongue, learn English, and receive help navigating health care, benefits, school administration, and other facets of American life. Volunteers also aid adults with resume building and job training and assist the children with homework, college applications, financial aid, and exposure to the arts.
“I find the most beautiful people here, whether they’re the volunteers or the people who are new to the country,” said Mercedes Fol-Okamoto, a Westfield volunteer who learned about the project from a neighbor. “I learn a lot about other cultures, and I feel love here.”
The Fun Club got its start after the congregation, in collaboration with two Westfield churches, First United Methodist Church and the First Congregational Church, adopted three newly arrived Syrian families in the spring of 2016. At first each congregation tended to the needs of one family, but within a few months synagogue members Alissa Berger and Jenny Tananbaum realized there were many more families in the area that needed help.
At that time, according to the United States Department of State, nearly 300 refugees from Syria alone had been settled in New Jersey in a period of months. (The numbers of refugees have slowed considerably since 2016. Between October 2018 and the end of February 2019, a total of 77 refugees from all countries were settled in New Jersey, according to the Department of State.)
In September 2016, in collaboration with Emanu-El and its clergy, Berger and Tananbaum started the Fun Club so kids could do arts and crafts and play games while their parents learned English. Over time, as the needs of the refugees have become more clearly defined, the organizers have added new elements to the program.
The majority of the 18 families involved, refugees who have been settled mostly in nearby Elizabeth by the International Refugee Committee, come from Syria and Iraq but the group has included people from Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Venezuela. About half the volunteers come from the synagogue. The rest come from the churches that were part of the original collaboration and from the general community.
On March 9 about 15 families showed up. Tananbaum chatted with the refugees for a few minutes while they grabbed some coffee before they made their way down the hall. Two moms, Rana and Kholood (last names of refugees are withheld to protect their privacy), went to the ESL room while teenager Wael headed into the homework room where he and Westfield teen Julia Burk worked through some math problems involving triangles.
Some young children decorated masks and created designs with Perler beads, while others, like 11-year-old Mahmoud, who was playing Chutes and Ladders with synagogue member Spencer Feinstein, 17, went to a room filled with board games. A few kids zoomed around the hallways while some teenage boys took full advantage of the bagels and doughnuts as they hung out and finished their homework. On most Saturdays — though not this one — there are also volunteer specialists who teach karate, theater arts, or music.
Throughout the morning, Berger and Tananbaum hold “office hours” in an otherwise empty classroom. It’s an opportunity for the refugees to bring their questions and issues and ask for help. On this morning, one woman comes in with a photo of an umbrella stroller on her smartphone — needed for a baby who has grown too big to be carried. Tananbaum is hopeful that the community will be able to raise the funds.
Other challenges they have faced include finding a divorce lawyer for a woman dealing with domestic violence, figuring out why a subsidy check for a utility bill never reached PSE&G, and understanding why, when a man was lucky enough to land two jobs, his family lost his benefits and couldn’t make ends meet.
“We post constantly on Facebook,” said Tananbaum. “We may say, ‘Does anybody know a lawyer?’ and people jump to help.”
In fact, the women each estimate they spend about 20 hours per week responding to whatever issues arise in the days between Saturdays. When one of those texts comes in, Berger said, “We drop everything and we help them.” While the constant needs can be challenging and at times frustrating, the response is “heartwarming,” Tananbaum said.
They’ve had their own learning curve regarding how the American safety net and other social services work. “We know about the refugee experience now,” said Tananbaum. “And we’re slowly learning, how does the welfare system work? How does the health-care system work? How does the school system work?”
She added, “If we can’t understand exactly what to do, can you imagine how they don’t understand?”
Abdullah, 17, from Iraq, has become a volunteer for the Fun Club. Before his family heard about the program, he was having a difficult time. “I didn’t have much communication with the outside of the house because I [didn’t] know a lot of people,” he said. He slept a lot, and had nothing to do except go to school. “Then we heard about Fun Club and we came here, and I met some teenagers who are my age. And I made a lot of friends.” It marked a shift for him. Now a junior, he’s interested in technology and hopes to attend college at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.
Mustafa, 35, also volunteers while his wife and children learn English. A dentist by training, he’s spoken fluent English since he was a child, he explained, even serving as an interpreter for the American military in Iraq. He’s been in Elizabeth for two years, and has been coming to the Fun Club for six months. He described it as a community.
“It’s just like a feeling of, you know, of security,” he said. “You can come and you have somebody on your back, you know, you’re not going to feel insecure anymore.” He added, “You have somebody to relate to. If you have a problem — anything that you don’t know how to figure out — you can always ask.”
Inside the ESL room, Hafeeza, from Syria, worked one-on-one with Fol-Okamoto. She said she comes every week with her children to learn English. “All peoples are here work hard with us and they help us too much to learn English very well,” Hafeeza said.
Fathima Sahuhame, a physician originally from Sri Lanka, heard about the group through her practice in Westfield. She leads a group of Muslim Sri Lankan youth — mostly high school and college students from the tri-state area who have volunteered for Fun Club in the past — although on this Saturday morning she comes with her infant. She sees value not only in the outreach to refugees but also in the interfaith interaction, especially given the current political climate.
“I think the number one thing that our youth wanted to do was not just volunteer and give back to the community and helping those that are needy, but also working with those, you know, of other faiths,” she said. “When the Jewish community was actually reaching out, we thought that was just, just a great opportunity to get to know one another.”
Religion and politics are not a part of the program and are never officially discussed, but it inevitably comes up in conversation, something most of the participants, both volunteers and new Americans, seem to enjoy. Sara, 14, from Syria, who came to the synagogue with a portfolio of her drawings for a meeting with a volunteer who is considering serving as a mentor, said one of the things she likes about the Fun Club, in addition to having the opportunity to draw and learn English, is the conversation with the volunteers and other refugees. “We speak to the people more and we know some stuff about people, like, how they act and how they use their religion, and how they are different from us,” she said.
Rabbi Ethan Prosnit, associate rabbi at Emanu-El, acknowledged that there were some conversations about whether to host the program on Shabbat. “We recognize that people celebrate Shabbat in many different ways,” he said. “We have volunteers that attend services and then participate in the Fun Club. We have volunteers that have found their spiritual connection through their work with our refugee families.” Pointing to the mitzvah of welcoming guests, he called the work “holy” and said, “This value compels us to welcome the refugees into our midst.”
The Fun Club has been so successful that word is starting to spread, and Tananbaum and Berger are getting calls from other communities with refugee populations. A volunteer in Jersey City contacted them and after meeting, set up a Fun Club in September for the refugees there, mostly from countries in Africa.
“If we could get these Fun Clubs started all over the country, wouldn’t that be wonderful?” said Berger.
What makes the work and the inevitable burnout that sometimes sets in worth it are “the hugs and the kisses and the joy that I see in the children’s faces when they come in,” said Berger. She added that the letters they receive are also gratifying such as one that said “I love you. Thank you so much for helping me and my family.”
Watching a family succeed, said Berger, is “the highest of the highs.”
And they’ve also decided to run the program three times a month rather than four, just to give themselves a break.
Tananbaum loves looking down the hallways on Saturdays and seeing everyone there. “We’re all in this together, and no one cares that they’re Muslim and we’re Jewish or they’re Christian, and it just doesn’t matter, and that’s what is so amazing to me, especially in this climate of distrust and hate and bigotry in our country right now,” she said. “You come up there on a Saturday morning, and all it is is love.”