National Refugee Shabbat, a campaign coordinated by the refugee resettlement and advocacy organization HIAS, encouraged Jewish communities across the United States to use Oct. 19-20, the Shabbat of the Torah portion where Abraham begins his journey to the land of Canaan, to create a Shabbat experience dedicated to refugees.
Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, HIAS is one of nine faith-based organizations — and the sole Jewish one — that partners with the federal government to help refugees start their lives in safety in America. HIAS was founded over 100 years ago to aid the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the U.S. but in recent decades has expanded its focus to aid and advocacy for refugees of all backgrounds from all over the world.
The organization was the subject of several social media rants posted by Robert Bowers, the shooter who claimed the lives of 11 people at the Tree of Life - Or L’Simcha massacre in Pittsburgh Oct. 27.
One of Bowers’s posts included the list of congregations participating in the National Refugee Shabbat campaign, in which he wrote: “You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.” Tree of Life was one of the synagogues that participated in National Refugee Shabbat.
Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, which participated in National Refugee Shabbat, said that while the attack was scary it’s important to remember the power and connection of the community around him.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with messages of support from the wider community,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a place where people have my back — from elected officials, to law enforcement, to the interfaith community — so I don’t feel less safe.”
Making a Global Issue Personal
Almost 300 congregations in 33 states and Canada participated in the campaign, according to HIAS, including nearly 40 in the Greater Washington area. Local congregations participated in different ways, holding educational events and community discussions and offering Shabbat sermons highlighting the plight of refugees and the centrality of Jewish values in the U.S. immigration policy debate.
“Our temple has been active in helping refugee families for two and a half years,” said Mark Joffe, lay leader and member of the Tikkun Olam Committee at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland. “There are still many refugee families in the metropolitan area who continue to need help and support.”
Joffe also noted there are many ways in which communities can help refugees — whether directly by helping them meet their daily needs, or through advocacy on the national and local levels.
“There’s a coalition of faith communities, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, in Montgomery County collectively working to help refugee families,” he said.
At Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., about 200 congregants gathered on Oct. 19 for a Kabbalat Shabbat service and sermon led by Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS education director of community engagement. Temple Micah also held a luncheon the following day, celebrating the first year in the U.S. of a family the community had helped relocate from Afghanistan.
Washington Hebrew Congregation’s National Refugee Shabbat event featured a performance from Cathedra, the professional choir of the Washington National Cathedral, and words from Cantor Mikhail Manevich. Cantor Manevich talked about his own experience emigrating from the former Soviet Union to the United States in 1976.
“The heart and soul of his singing and the feeling he had for being able to take himself and his wife out of the Soviet Union and sing here was a beautiful moment and a special time,” said congregant Marsha Weinberg.
Some programming wasn’t over the weekend of Oct. 19-20 specifically but during the week before or after. The recently vandalized Northern Virginia JCC made HIAS the beneficiary of an Oct. 14 concert celebrating the music of Flory Jagoda, a composer and singer who survived the Holocaust and vowed to preserve and pass down her community’s tradition of Ladino music. The story of Flory’s refugee experience — displaced twice from Spain and then centuries later Yugoslavia — was woven into the performance.
Temple Rodef Shalom in McLean, Virginia, held an independent talk on the immigration crisis on Oct. 18.
Temple Beth-El's Rabbi Knopf added that while his community is already active in helping refugees, it was still important to take the time to highlight this issue.
“In one way, the event enabled us to celebrate what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “If you’re focused on tikkun olam, sometimes you’re thinking about all the things out there that are broken instead of the ones you’ve helped repair," he said.
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a staff writer for Kol HaBirah.