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For love of strangers: Behind the Jewish legacy of welcoming refugees

Why We Wrote This

For many, the question of whether to accept refugees into the United States comes down to politics. For many Jews – as well as Muslims and Christians – it is “a matter of moral commitment.”

Bill Swersey/HIAS
Fadi Kassar (l), hugged his daughters Hnan, 8, and Lian, 5, last year for the first time in more than two years as his wife Razan looked on. HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, had assisted the Syrian family after their initial reunion attempt was unsuccessful.

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One of the more surprising elements of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last weekend was the alleged shooter’s targeted rage against Jewish communities aiding refugees and specifically HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that works to protect refugees around the world. “It’s both shocking and confounding, because it’s just such a twisting of the narrative we know to be true, which is that this is our obligation, and really everybody’s obligation,” says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, director of education for community engagement at HIAS. That impulse to help others and in particular to help refugees and immigrants has deep roots in Judaism as well as other faith traditions. And many faith leaders say that, at a time of increased division and fear of the “other,” we need even more of that sort of love. Rabbi Sid Schwarz notes that his Bethesda, Md., congregation adopted an Afghan family who was resettled by a Presbyterian refugee organization. “That’s the epitome of what it means for people of faith to join hands together with people who are suffering and who are the most vulnerable in the world today,” he says.

When thousands of Afghan immigrants were resettled in California’s Sacramento County over the past decade, volunteers from Congregation B’nai Israel were among those in the county providing aid, helping parents find apartments and jobs, and offering assistance ranging from literacy lessons to backpacks and school supplies. 

“We have Holocaust survivors in our congregation, and so many of us are just a generation or two removed from relatives who went through that experience or were forced to leave their country,” says Maryann Rabovsky, who has served as chairwoman of the synagogue’s immigration and refugee assistance committee since it was formed three years ago. “They came here as refugees, and so we understand how important it is to help others who are having to leave everything they know behind.”

That calling to help the “other” – to welcome strangers, to aid immigrants and refugees – is one with deep roots in Judaism, as well as other faiths, and many Jews say they feel both a deep moral obligation as well an ethical imperative from their own history. 

And it’s a message that gained new prominence this weekend when the idea of love for strangers and a faith-based imperative to help was thrust into juxtaposition with extreme hate, in the form of the shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, who, in online posts, tried to justify his actions by demonizing Jewish groups helping refugees.

“The radical message of the Bible is that we should let our suffering teach us love,” says Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of Hadar, an egalitarian center for advanced Jewish learning in New York. “Another way of coming at this is that there are three love commandments in the Bible: love of God, love of the neighbor, and love of the stranger – in the modern translation that essentially means immigrant.”

An ancient text cannot be used to settle the details of contemporary policy questions, Rabbi Held adds, “but it can and should help us establish an ethos, and the ethos can and should be one of welcome. The demonization of people seeking refuge is, religiously speaking, an abomination.”  

For some Americans less familiar with refugee issues, Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh may have been the first time they’d heard of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that is one of nine resettlement agencies that partner with the US government to assist refugees. Founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, HIAS largely aided Jewish refugees fleeing persecution through the 20th century. More recently the group has expanded its work to assist non-Jewish refugees, and to work to help refugees around the world, wherever they are.

When Robert Bowers opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday, killing 11 people and wounding six, he was apparently driven by anti-Semitism, but had also expressed rage online specifically against HIAS, spouting conspiracy theories that the organization “like[d] to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us.”

That rage has been devastating to those doing the work.

“It’s both shocking and confounding, because it’s just such a twisting of the narrative we know to be true, which is that this is our obligation, and really everybody’s obligation,” says Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, director of education for community engagement at HIAS. “We’re in a time of incredible polarization in this country, where there has been a real uptick in hate speech, and that hate has been allowed to foment. This is a really tragic result of the moment that we’re in, but it also points to a patent misunderstanding of what our moral and ethical and religious obligations really are.”

Those obligations have deep roots not just in Judaism, but in all three of the Abrahamic traditions, says Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York (and who happens to be, as she notes, a Muslim woman heading a Holocaust center at a Catholic college). 

“For all three traditions, the stranger, the refugee, the wayfarer – they’re part of all the sacred scripture,” says Professor Afridi, citing numerous specific instances in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran where that obligation is spelled out. “We’ve all been strangers in lands, and I think that faith groups have always tried to help immigrants.” There’s a Syrian student on campus, Afridi notes, who has been helped by Muslims, Jews, and Catholics in his journey. 

Of course, not everyone interprets those traditions that way, and all three faiths also have darker, less loving histories among some sects. “All faiths share the following: If you read your tradition in the most narrow way, faith can actually encourage narrow-mindedness and bigotry and exclusionary rhetoric and behavior,” says Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World.” It’s a reason, he adds, why “an open heart” is called for in reading and understanding those traditions.

Open hearts were in abundance in the wake of Saturday’s shooting. There was an outpouring of support for the Tree of Life Synagogue from Muslims, Christians, and other faith communities around the country.

'A moral commitment'

In Jewish teachings, that idea of welcoming the stranger is a core tenet, harkening back to the days when Jews were exiles in Egypt. “You reach out to the other, because you were the other in Egypt. It’s a constant refrain,” says Rabbi Shoshanah Conover at Chicago’s Temple Sholom. The Torah readings last weekend – the day of the Pittsburgh shooting – were about Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers into their tent, who turn out to be messengers from God, notes Rabbi Conover. “That’s where we get this value of welcoming guests,” she says. “Once we get to Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we have the mention of welcoming the stranger, loving the stranger, all of these commandments, 36 times.”  

Christie Materni/HIAS
US Together volunteer Dominic Shamas (c.) translates the names of seasonings for Jawhr Alshehab at Food Town grocery in Toledo, Ohio. US Together is a Cleveland-based nonprofit that assists refugees with support from HIAS.

For many American Jews, they only have to look a generation or two back to find instances when they, or people they know, were fleeing persecution. Held notes that his father was born in Poland and his mother in Lithuania, and that “the world into which they were born was obliterated.” But more recently, other ethnic groups around the world have emerged as the most vulnerable, pushing more Jews to look outside of their community as they seek to help, says Rabbi Schwarz.

“If we take our own experience and have the ethos to care for the stranger stop at the borders of our own community and tribe, then we’ve learned nothing from history,” says Schwarz. HIAS’s work, he says, epitomizes that drive to practice what teachings demand. “HIAS as an organization has pivoted from an organization that primarily was committed to helping Jewish refugees to, today, an organization that helps refugees because we’re Jews.” 

And even while Jewish communities have specific history, both recent and ancient, that gives added resonance, and empathy, to the idea of helping refugees – many Jewish scholars emphasize that the moral imperative would exist regardless. 

“Every year Jews try to internalize the idea that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt and were liberated,… and we’re asked to make the leap to understand how others who were strangers or immigrants might feel,” says Held. “That’s why you have such a fiercely impassioned response from a large swath of the Jewish community” not just to the refugee crisis but to the immigration issues that came to a head this summer. “The historical experience of the Jews amplifies for us what is always in place as a moral commitment.” 

It’s that commitment – and the news about the Syrian refugee crisis – that led Conover, at the Chicago temple, to help spearhead a recent effort to sponsor a refugee family. “It hit that boiling point where it felt like if we don’t do something now, we’re not living up to our ethical Jewish imperative,” she says. 

Her temple and several others in Chicago went through training with HIAS and, in the end, Temple Sholom sponsored a Rohingya family through RefugeeOne, another refugee resettlement agency. The political turmoil around refugees that has arisen during the Trump presidency delayed the temple’s efforts to help, and prompted congregants to shift some of their focus to advocacy, Conover says. And the experience of actually working with a refugee family – which arrived with a 2-year-old son and a teenage daughter, and that has another child who wasn’t able to travel with them – lent a personal immediacy to what can seem an abstract debate.

“Working with them very directly makes it very, very personal when there is dehumanizing rhetoric about who comes to this country,” says Conover. 

‘If you save one life, you save a world’

In Wellesley, Mass., a leafy suburb 30 minutes west of Boston, Michael Gilman and Debbie Gotbetter get similarly emotional when they talk about the two Syrian families their temple, Beth Elohim, has helped to support, and the six other families in the area they’ve worked with.

They were also moved to help by news of the growing Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, and both serve on the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Team associated with their congregation, which works with HIAS and Jewish Family Services.

“In the Jewish tradition and the Muslim tradition, you know the saying is ‘If you save one life, you save a world,’ ” says Mr. Gilman, speaking in a quiet corner of Beth Elohim as children run about on the floor below. “And you know, from that perspective we’ve saved many worlds.”

Ms. Gotbetter, Gilman, and other volunteers worked to set up apartments for the families ahead of time, stocking them with furniture and familiar foods. And the nervousness they felt before the families’ arrival quickly melted away, they said. Since the families arrived about two years ago the volunteers have shared poignant moments with them, and Gotbetter even served as a doula for a birth.

“I have more photos of them than I do of my own family,” she says.

Gotbetter remembers asking one father what surprised him the most coming here. “And he pointed at me and basically said, ‘You. Your community,’ ” she says. “They were surprised that we were all Jewish and have told their families, and I think they were surprised too, and it's been really powerful for all of us.”

Schwarz notes that the process of helping a refugee family was also a powerful experience for his congregation in Bethesda, Md. In their case, it was an Afghan family – a husband, wife, and four children – that they helped, and it was in conjunction with a Presbyterian refugee resettlement organization. “Our entire congregation has embraced them,” Schwarz says. “You’ve got a Christian organization helping a Muslim family from Afghanistan, and we’re Jews who are doing it. And all those pieces are interchangeable. You go to another community where HIAS is the agency, and a Christian church is taking on the family that’s coming in from Syria. That’s the epitome of what it means for people of faith to join hands together with people who are suffering and who are the most vulnerable in the world today.” 

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