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A Jew's Calling: Responding to the Refugee Crisis

A Jew's Calling: Responding to the Refugee Crisis

It was less than 48 hours before High Holy days were to begin. Nearing final edits on my sermon, I glanced at the New York Times and everything changed for me. What was to be a five-minute break turned into a flood of anger and fear. The more I read about the escalating global refugee crisis, the more distressed I became.

Concerned that I had failed to pay sufficient attention to the state of the world, I immediately sought to learn what our American Jewish community and organizations were doing. My anger transformed into panic, because all I found was a deafening silence. My alarm was rooted in a fear that as Jews we needed to publically, loudly, energetically seize the moment to help the displaced in ways that eluded us throughout history.

So with 60 million refugees on the move, I decided to turn out the lights and see what would come out of my fingertips.  An hour later my wife came home from work, she found me in the dark with my laptop open. I turned to her and said, “Honey, I think I just wrote a new sermon.”

Over the next ten days, I met with leaders in our community to help build an infrastructure that could be activated at the conclusion of the High Holy days. We were in touch with the State Department and HIAS to understand the needs and what we could do to help. With an incredible team from Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, and HIAS , our synagogue’s Social Justice Council developed a comprehensive action plan to collect donations, lobby officials to bring refugees into our community and prepare volunteers who would offer to care for them once they arrived. Rather than just talking about what should be done, our communications staff worked with the Council, to have a new website ready for launch upon completion of the new sermon.  

The reaction after Yom Kippur was nothing less than astounding. We not only had a flood of families making donations and dozens volunteering to lobby, but also nearly 100 people signed up to adopt or help with refugee orphans.  The team guided the energy of the community into developing new relationships with Catholic Charities to assist with and coordinate refugee adoptions. The first time we asked for donations of clothes and blankets, we ended up with 7000 pounds of clothing at our front gate in less than 48 hours.  Most remarkable is that the movement has grown organically with continuing waves of community members so moved that they traveled to the shores of Lesbos, Greece to distribute them personally to the fleeing refugees arriving on their way to Europe.  

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗םוְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץמִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God, (Leviticus 19:34).

I do not call this a cause, because this is not a cause for us. This is our obligation; this is our job; this is what we do. This is not a cause - this is a Jew’s calling.  


Rabbi Ryan Bauer has served Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA since 2005. 

Published: 1/11/2016