The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
It’s easy to be afraid of the stranger.
In fact, it’s perfectly natural.
And that’s exactly why the Torah commands us to embrace the stranger, to protect her and take her into our own home, to remember our own periods of vulnerability and to act with compassion when prudence would turn us away.
And so we read in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b): Rabbi Eleazar the Great said: Why does Torah warn 36 times—and some say 46 times—about [wronging] the stranger? Because wickedness is [part of] human nature.
Our congregation, The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, has tried to live up to the Torah’s challenge. We’ve tried to rise above our natural instincts and act with God in our hearts, reaching out to refugee neighbors who come from cultures and communities very different from our own.
Over the past year, we’ve conducted coat drives for refugees, hosted a CSA (community-supported agriculture) with produce from a refugee farmer, and added our voice to local and national efforts of advocacy for refugees. We’ve educated ourselves and the general community about refugee resettlement, and we’ve created new partnerships with refugee service organizations in our area. This work has increased our capacity to live out our Torah values, to put our tradition’s ancient wisdom to work, and to expand the relationships in our community to areas it otherwise would never have reached.
One of the most impactful events we’ve created is a birthday party for refugee children. Many refugees are assigned a birthdate of January 1 when they enter the United States, so we had a chance to celebrate them all at the beginning of 2017. Support poured in from Jewish and non-Jewish community members, who were eager to donate gifts, funds, and services to the cause.
Hundreds of refugees attended, all of whom had a smile on their face. Together with children from our congregation, refugee kids played in a bounce-house, ate lunch from a refugee-owned restaurant, and enjoyed party attractions like face painting and balloon animals. Of course, everyone received a gift. And perhaps best of all was our chorus of “Happy Birthdays,” in which groups of refugees sang “Happy Birthday” in their native languages to all who had gathered together.
The event uplifted the guests, energized the refugee service organizations, and inspired our congregation’s volunteers. Planning is underway for next year’s event, this time in partnership with another Reform community (Congregation Beth Torah), and the organizers couldn’t be more excited. We’re hopeful that this local event will not only increase our joy and grow our relationships but also strengthen our resolve to work for justice for refugees in our community and beyond.
Daniel Kirzane was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, where he also received an MA in Religious Education. He currently serves as Assistant Rabbi at The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, KS. Daniel is proud to be on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street, to be a chaver of T'ruah, and to serve on the HUC-JIR Rabbinical School Alumni Council. He is an officer of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City and is an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, for which he serves on the Alumni Coordinating Committee. He is a passionate teacher and advocate for social justice. If you’d like to learn more about how to build partnerships like these in order to broaden your outreach to the refugee community, feel free to reach out to Rabbi Daniel Kirzane at firstname.lastname@example.org.