Welcoming the Stranger: How Reform Congregations are Taking Action for Refugees

February 23, 2022Rachel Klein

This is a critical time for refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. Those in need of safe homes include Afghan refugees in addition to the millions of other displaced persons worldwide. For the past four years, the RAC has joined HIAS in dedicating a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers. The fourth annual Refugee Shabbat will take place March 4-5, 2022. Many of our congregations have joined us in observing Refugee Shabbat in the past, and many have gone even further to support refugees year-round. Below are some reflections from congregations on their experiences.

"Something special has happened by helping a family move to our community. It has reminded so many of us of our own family members escaping harm and coming to this country for a new beginning. It has activated our sense of purpose and humanity by encountering one family, helping them with housing (they live for free in a house we own), supporting them with healthcare, helping them to bring a new baby into the world, and getting them access to benefits so that they can grow toward self-sufficiency. My congregants who have stepped forward to support them feel energized in this holy work and want to build meaningful relationships between this family and our congregants. It has been amazing to witness.

"We are participating in Refugee Shabbat because being a refugee is part of Jewish memory. As we lift up this cause, we get to share that real people's lives are at stake. It isn't just an 'issue' worthy of attention, but by stepping out and calling people in to help, we follow the teaching of 'You must not disappear' (Deut 22.3; literally 'hide yourself'). I couldn't agree more. We've got work to do."

- Rabbi Fred Greene, Congregation Har HaShem, Boulder, CO on the Margolis Family Campus

"In 2016, Temple Sinai was invited to join several other temples in our area in sponsoring a refugee family from Lebanon. Committees were formed, funds were raised, and a myriad of services and outreach were put in place to welcome and work closely with a family of three, all of whom came with serious and ongoing medical issues. We were there to welcome them at Logan airport when they arrived in July of 2017. There was no shortage of temple members interested in helping and committing much in the way of time whether it be to drive to appointments, meet face to face for ESL lessons, sit in on medical appointments or work behind the scenes to find housing, furnishings, and everything else a new family needs in a new country. At Refugee Shabbat last year, the teenage daughter was invited to share reflections on how she has assimilated to life here. She spoke eloquently about her friends, her career goals, and expressed gratitude for all the support she and her parents receive from Temple Sinai. To this day, several members of the temple as well as others in the community drawn to the mission continue to help this family.

"From the day they arrived they hoped their other adult children and grandchildren would also be able to join them here, but they were the last family allowed to come before our previous administration put a stop to refugees entering the U.S. Six months ago, word came that their daughter and son, each married with two children, were moving forward with their applications and both families arrived two weeks apart in September 2021. Again we were there to welcome these families, and the reunion was beyond joyous. Temple members independently raised some money for the new families and several members as well as others in the community have been helping the new families. I am pleased to report that both fathers have found full time employment and are well established with community services. Though Temple Sinai no longer has a formal Syrian Refugee Resettlement Committee, we continue to 'Welcome the Stranger', for we were once strangers ourselves."

- Mel Stoler, Former co-chair of the Refugee committee at Temple Sinai, Brookline, MA

"As a rabbi at Fairmount Temple, I serve a historic congregation with a rich history of social justice work. Our observance of Refugee Shabbat, with the full force and support of the RAC behind us, elevated our Shabbat observance. Last year, for Refugee Shabbat, our synagogue virtually hosted three asylum seekers from Burkina Faso in West Africa. These three men, who have found sanctuary in a neighboring church, shared their story through an interpreter. Our congregation was changed by the connection, and Refugee Shabbat renewed our commitment to see ourselves in every stranger."

- Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, Beechwood, OH

"Our synagogue - Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA has participated for the last several years in Refugee Shabbat. It has heightened our congregation's awareness to be involved in this vital work. Our Social Justice lay leader, Jess Winfield, as co-chair of the Los Angeles Area Jewish Coalition for Refugees (JCARI-LA) in cooperation with HIAS, has helped us target our actions including: a campaign to get congregants to donate frequent flyer miles for refugees in the Miles 4 Migrants program and our participation in the HIAS call in day to Congress members to increase funding for Afghanistan refugees. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic we have remained committed to our work for refugees and asylum seekers. Our participation in Refugee Shabbat again in March will be our reminder that the work is still ongoing and a call to deepen our commitment."

- Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Sr. Rabbi Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA

As we dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers, here are some ways you can support these vulnerable populations during Refugee Shabbat and beyond:

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