Creating Community on World Refugee Day

June 11, 2024Ellen Garfinkle

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, which honors the experiences of refugees and celebrates their contributions to their communities and the world. The UN Refugee Agency reports that more than 114 million individuals were forcibly displaced by the end of 2023, with more than 35 million identified as refugees. The UN Refugee agency estimates that the number of displaced people will grow to 130 million by the end of 2024. More than 50% of refugees come from three countries: Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. In these countries, internal and external conflicts and humanitarian crises are ongoing.

As Jews, we are no strangers to the plight refugees face. For centuries, Jewish communities have been forced to flee their homes. Our religious texts remind us to welcome "the stranger." The Torah states, "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34). This teaching, and our own experiences, require us to welcome refugees and advocate for policies that respect the human rights of those who seek safety in a new community.

Many Reform synagogues advocate for refugees to fulfill our duty to welcome the stranger. In Sacramento, California, Congregation B'nai Israel operates a program called Camp Nefesh, a week-long day camp for refugee children. Camp Nefesh is run almost entirely by the community's teens and was founded by the 2018 confirmation class after conversations emerged surrounding the phrase "Love Thy Neighbor," which is posted on the outside of a B'nai Israel building. With the help of a local resettlement agency, Camp Nefesh serves around 100 children each summer. Campers participate in activities centered around themes like American holidays and "under the sea." This camp fosters deep relationships between campers and counselors, and helps counselors strengthen their Jewish identities. Camp Nefesh has inspired community mobilization to support newcomers and religious school classes often choose to give their class tzedakah tzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”  to the camp. Camp Nefesh serves as a place for counselors and staff to learn about the meaning of home and explore what it means to create welcoming communities, especially for those who are actively redefining what home means to them. This camp shows how successful acts of tikkun olam tikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice. can be when we engage with newcomers as a community.

In Westfield, New Jersey, Temple Emanu-El answers the call to welcome refugees with their program, "The Fun Club." After the temple helped resettle several Syrian families in 2017, The Fun Club became a bi-weekly program that offers ESL classes, activities, tutoring services, and more. The Fun Club serves refugees from around the globe, engages with the local community, and is run completely by volunteers from high school community service groups, confirmation classes, and people from neighboring towns. Those who volunteer with The Fun Club say it's a space where people come together from a variety of religions and backgrounds. The Fun Club prompts people to work across lines of difference, allowing those involved to see each other's humanity. This is observed through something as simple as watching a group of kids play UNO, which organizers have found to be a universal game that transcends language barriers. Volunteers view this community as a form of prayer that emphasizes the need for human connection when repairing the world.

World Refugee Day reminds us to think about the Jewish immigration stories of those within our own movement. Karen, a college student from Florida currently living in New York and L'Taken alum, speaks of her great-grandmother who survived the Holocaust and resettled in Mexico, where her family stayed until 11 years ago. Karen grew up in a Mexican Jewish community which began receiving safety threats. After a shooting targeted a bus which was traveling to a neighboring Yiddish school, Karen's family quickly fled. Karen was seven years old at the time and had little time for a proper goodbye. Since immigrating to the U.S., Karen has navigated the multiple identities she holds, including being Mexican and Jewish. She says she finds her Jewish and Mexican identities come out stronger in different settings, sometimes depending on how others perceive her. Despite the difficulties of holding these identities, Karen focuses on the importance of not losing herself. Her Jewish values of accepting the stranger and treating them as your own, guide her interactions with the world. She hopes these values can help guide others into prioritizing acceptance and seeing the beauty that immigrants bring to America.

Levi, a high school student in North Carolina, shared his story with members of Congress at L'Taken. His parents adopted him from Guatemala at nine months. He learned from his parents about the lengthy process and paperwork involved because he was not a U.S. citizen. After many interviews and a significant application fee, Levi's parents obtained American citizenship for him when he was two. Levi spoke about how fortunate he felt that he went through the immigration process so young, as well as the roles community and Judaism played. To Levi, the Jewish community is one of inclusivity, welcome, and safety. He hopes to amplify this by welcoming all those in search of a safe community.

Hearing these stories reminds us that we are not far removed from our communal experience as refugees and community seekers. We must continue to invest in creating spaces of community to repair the world. As we are taught in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), to save one life is to have saved the world.

Here are two ways you can advocate for refugees this World Refugee Day:

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Every year on June 20, we honor the resilience and courage of refugees and celebrate their contributions to our communities and to our entire nation. The best way to honor and celebrate refugees is by taking action to make the U.S. a more welcoming place for those seeking safety.