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Wrestling With the Refugee Crisis

Taking a cue from this week’s Torah portion, HIAS spearheads a national conversation about asylum-seekers

Marjorie Ingall
October 19, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

This weekend (Oct. 19-20, 2018) is National Refugee Shabbat, the brainchild of HIAS. Formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS was founded in 1881 to help Jews escaping Russian pogroms. Since then, it’s worked on behalf of immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced persons; starting in the early 2000s, it expanded its vision beyond Jews, assisting vulnerable people in the aftermath of conflicts around the world. Today, the number of displaced persons is the highest it’s been in history. Someone is displaced from their home every two seconds. Children are ripped away from their parents at borders.

This year, HIAS is starting what it hopes will be a new tradition: a weekend during which Americans will ponder refugee issues. So far, more than 270 Jewish congregations and organizations in 32 states have signed up to participate. Why this weekend? Merrill Zack, senior director of community engagement at HIAS, told me: “We chose it because of this Shabbat’s parsha, Lech Lecha, and its connection to our own people’s wandering in an enduring quest for freedom. But we also chose a time we knew would be critical.”

Let’s address the timing first: It dovetails with the federal government’s announcement of a new “refugee ceiling,” the number of refugees who will be allowed into the United States in a given year. “When we started planning this, we assumed the ceiling will be low, based on how resettlement numbers were flowing,” Zack said. “But we did not anticipate that it would be as low as it turned out to be—a historic low.”

For much of the 2000s, the annual ceiling was set at 70,000. As the Syrian refugee crisis worsened, President Obama raised the ceiling to 85,000 for 2016 and 110,000 for 2017. But in March 2017, Trump dropped that number to 50,000, and just announced that it will drop further, to 45,000, the lowest number ever set by any president since the Refugee Act became law in 1980. (In practice, for what it’s worth, the U.S. has settled far fewer than even that. As of Sept. 17, 2018, the U.S. had only resettled 20,918 refugees this year.) Furthermore, victims of domestic violence will no longer qualify for asylum, nor will anyone who has traveled more than two weeks or passed through more than one country to get to the U.S.

Zack’s colleague Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS’ education director, explained why this week’s parsha is resonant. “Lech Lecha is the first portion where we see one of our ancestors go on a journey,” she told me. “The experience of having to rebuild a life gave Avraham a unique understanding of being a stranger in a strange place and gives the rest of us insight and empathy. The Jewish people also became unrooted from our homeland, but that’s not the whole story. Rabbi Shai Held says that while our insight into what it means to be a refugee should magnify our understanding of the need to help, even if we had not been refugees we would still have that obligation. We can develop radical empathy without shared experience. But shared experience is powerful.”

Another reason to have this event now is the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections. “The midterms are critical for HIAS,” Zack said. “This is a moment in time when we knew that as a refugee agency, we’d want to be inspiring and encouraging our constituents to raise their voices for refugees.”

You can see a list of communities participating in National Refugee Shabbat here, but if your synagogue isn’t on it, or if you’re a solo artist, you can create your own programming. HIAS provides a roundup of ways to take action here, including education toolkits, volunteer opportunities, rallies, information about becoming a sanctuary congregation, and ideas for things to do with kids to teach them about the refugee crisis.

There’s also a National Refugee Shabbat resource guide to help frame discussions—whether at your Shabbat dinner table or in a group of friends or with your kids or parents—about the crisis. “You could watch Human Flow, the documentary by the artist Ai Weiwei about the refugee experience,” Zack suggested, “Or just watch a segment of it, because it’s long! [It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes; HIAS breaks out specific suggestions for shorter snippets to watch and discussion topics for each.] Or you can check out our resource guide called How to Have Difficult Conversations—sometimes you have to find bravery and root yourself to be able to do that.”

If you want to do your own deep dive into Lech Lecha, the parsha in which Abram becomes Abraham (or Avram becomes Avraham, if you’d rather do this in Hebrew), this parsha is the first time we hear Avram described as Avram Ha’Ivri—Avram, the one who crosses over. Before long, the Jewish people will be known as Ha’Ivrim—the ones who cross over. Why? What does that mean for our collective identity? Does your family have its own “crossing over” story?

HIAS also provides a new poetic, refugee-centric version of the traditional Aleinu prayer, written by Meyer. “In their creative social justice work, Lab/Shul uses the idea of “It’s on Us” for Aleinu [literally “upon us”], and I wanted to bring that to the larger community,” Meyer said. “The Aleinu usually talks about our obligation to praise God, and one of the ways to do that is by helping out our fellow human beings and thinking about what else is upon us when we have a connection to God.”

Aleinu: It was on us.
It was on us from the moment our ancestors were first forced to leave home,
charged with transforming their wandering into a blessing for all people.
It has been on us since that wandering became encoded in our DNA,
from Avram Ha’Ivri, Abram the one who crossed over,
to Ha’Ivrim, the Jewish people,
all of us inheriting the legacy of centuries of crossing from one home to another.
As our people became a refugee people,
we took on the sacred responsibility to see our story as bound up with the stories of all who continue to wander.
Aleinu: It was on us.

Aleinu: It is on us.
“Love [the stranger] as you would love yourself,
for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” God said.
To advocate for a world in which the 68 million people who flee for their lives
can find protection and a place to call home—
To stand with those who leave nightmarish situations only to undertake nightmarish journeys
so that they may exercise their legal right to find protection in these United States—
To cry out for the families who are separated from one another,
detained without an end in sight,
babies calling for parents who may never see them again—
To speak up when those in power shut the doors of our country to victims of violence and persecution—To stay outraged from a place of love rather than hate,
from a place of welcome rather than exclusion–
These, too, are our obligations without measure.
Aleinu: It is on us.

We know the cost of making any other choice,
of demurring from the holy task of transforming our wandering into blessing.
As we bow and bend to the Source of Freedom,
with visions of a repaired world in our minds
and the commitment to fulfill these visions on our tongues and at our fingertips—
Aleinu: It will always be on us to remember that there is no us and there is no them, there are only God’s children,
each deserving of blessings of liberty and justice.

You could, perhaps, look at how traditional Jewish texts address refugee issues. How many times do the Torah and Talmud offer variants of, “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”? “Maybe it’s mentioned so many times because it’s hard,” Zack offered. “It’s not easy to help people who aren’t like you, who may have perspectives different from yours. But that doesn’t mean we don’t rise to the challenge.”

You could open up a conversation with people who say, “Oh, our congregation isn’t political” or “Helping refugees means letting dangerous people into the country,” explaining that a) helping refugees is not political; it’s an edict in the Torah. And in our own lifetimes, it was a bipartisan issue for decades; it’s only recently been “political.” And b) as Zack noted, “The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has incredible amounts of vetting; the most vulnerable people in the world are vetted more than any other population that comes to the U.S. More than students, more than tourists, more than any other group.” She’s correct; you might offer actual data and testimony by those doing the vetting.

With your family, you could listen to music by Jewish refugee composers (HIAS offers info about Samuel Adler, Israel Alter, Bela Bartok, Tania Leon, Darius Milhaud, and Ruth Schonthal, but me, I’d go with Irving Berlin), or you could explore HIAS’ discussion guides for kids in grades 5-9. After all, over half the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. Older kids may already be aware of the thousands of children who were separated from their parents at the Mexican border and of the many parents who were deported without their children. Our kids tend to know more about current events than we think.

With younger children, you might check out HIAS’ children’s book Rosie and Warda and the Big Tent, but there are any number of wonderful recent children’s books about the refugee experience. (For little kids, I most fervently recommend The Journey by Italian artist Francesca Sanna—it’s gorgeous—and for kids in grades 4-8, I’d get Refugee by Alan Gratz, a gripping page turner that educates painlessly.) Zack noted, “Good books about refugees don’t terrify children. They help broaden their understanding about the world and engage in their surroundings with different lenses.”

Finally, it’s vital to have hope. “It’s an auspicious time to be doing this work,” Meyer said. “We just had the High Holidays, a time of deep introspection, and Sukkot, which is about dwelling outside and being reminded of the impermanence of shelter and of our own fragility, So to rise up now, to stand with refugees around the world for whom this is their daily reality, is very powerful.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.