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Jewish Connecticut steps up to help Muslim refugees resettle

By Cindy Mindell


Rabbi Joshua Ratner (center), director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New Haven, and Governor Dannel Malloy (right) listen to Wafaa (first name), a Syrian refugee who resettled in Danbury this past year, speak about her experience.

Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy made a stop last week in Woodbridge to address and stress the state’s commitment to help in refugee-resettlement efforts. At the podium with him were Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), and Syrian refugees recently resettled in New Haven and Danbury.

What may have surprised some was Malloy’s choice of venue: the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.

In his remarks defending Connecticut’s policy of taking in refugees rejected elsewhere in the country, Malloy said, “We need to stand up and understand the sorrows, the death, and the deprivation that are caused not only in our land but throughout the rest of the world. And we need to do our part internationally, according to those treaties that we long ago entered into, after the Second World War, when the world had to confront the fact that it had done too little to resettle a population of persons – many of those, Jewish individuals – and had dragged its feet.”

Malloy had no farther to look than Greater New Haven, whose Jewish and interfaith communities have long been involved in refugee resettlement.

In the early 1880s, Congregation Mishkan Israel, founded in 1840 in New Haven and now located in Hamden, was renting apartments in downtown New Haven for Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing the restrictive “Temporary Regulations Regarding the Jews” or “May Laws.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, and until the Iron Curtain was dismantled in 1991, Jewish institutions in the area and throughout Connecticut – Federations, synagogues, day schools, Jewish Family Service agencies – joined forces to help resettle the wave of Jewish families fleeing from an oppressive Soviet Union.

Anyone who has sat at a Passover seder table knows the basic Jewish attitude toward immigrants: “In each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” In the Torah and Talmud, there are no fewer than 35 directives about how to treat the stranger.

Today, however, the issue seems more complex, especially in a domestic political climate hostile to immigration, and with a growing wave of Muslim refugees. How are Jews meant to interpret and enact the ancient teachings?

“Before Syrian refugees began to arrive, most other refugees were not seen as a physical threat, but with the current phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, this changes everything,” says Rabbi Greg Wall of Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk, a modern Orthodox congregation. “That doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to have any type of Islamophobia or whatever phobia it is. But I think that that’s a game-changer. Maybe the closest comparison we have is the fear that led to internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Our leaders felt that because we were at war with Japan they didn’t know who was coming to kill us and who was just trying to make a better life for themselves. It was short-sighted, cruel, and not directly comparable because the majority [of the interned] were U.S. citizens. But it shows that good people can act horribly when fueled by fear. Someone who is just completely racist and doesn’t want Muslims, Blacks, Jews or any ethnic group in the country – I think that’s a different category.”

The responsibility of American Jews toward refugees, Wall says, “goes with having a responsibility to be citizens of this country and to respect and uphold the democratic principles that made it possible for us to even be here at all.”

Since the U.S. began admitting Syrian refugees last year, Jews and others have been working throughout Connecticut to create safe and welcoming new homes in their communities. There has been some opposition to these efforts, like letters to the editors of local newspapers, a protest outside a Ridgefield home where community members were planning to welcome a Syrian family, divisions of opinion within congregations. Despite the Torah’s directive to help the stranger, not all Jews commit to doing so, and some have trouble applying the commandment to Muslims.

But those dedicated to the cause are undeterred, according to Chris George, of the New Haven-based IRIS — one of 350 organizations throughout the U.S. supporting and working with newly resettled refugee families.

George followed Malloy at the JCC podium, telling the audience, “Over my first 10 years, an average of about two community groups per year would approach us and say, ‘We would like to welcome a refugee family into our community.’ Over the past 12 months, 50 community groups have stepped forward, from across the state.”

After refugees are vetted by the State Department and approved for immigration to the U.S., the newcomers are delegated to local organizations like IRIS, which then finds appropriate host communities in Connecticut.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 20 million refugees and 65 million displaced persons. In the fall, the U.S. reached its goal of resettling 85,000 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, of whom 10,000 are Syrian. Some 850 refugees came to Connecticut, where 477 refugees — 279 of them fleeing Syria — were resettled by IRIS — up from the 51 Syrians assisted by IRIS in 2015.

Congregation Mishkan Israel is one of five New Haven-area synagogues that comprise the year-old Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR), funded by and housed at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. JCARR is a community co-sponsor group, one of 50 in Connecticut trained by and affiliated with IRIS.

Over the past year, volunteers from Mishkan Israel, as well as Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven, Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, and Congregation Or Shalom and Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven, both in Orange, have formed a support network to handle the various needs associated with resettlement, like housing, transportation, employment, and tutoring.

Jean Silk is the JCARR coordinator.

“I became Jewish about 30 years ago; I was an ‘internationalist’ before I was Jewish and I’ve always seen the world through the lens of trying to help people from different cultures understand each other,” she says. “When I was preparing for my bat mitzvah at age 46 and read about the concept of tikkun olam, I felt like I had discovered the meaning of life: I thought, this is the roadmap for my life.”

Silk bases her commitment on the charge stipulated in Exodus 20:21: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“I believe that in the core of my being, to the point that when I hear that there are Jews in our community who don’t think we should be working with refugees from Syria, I honestly am shocked,” she says. “I don’t understand people who complain about antisemitism and then turn around and show the same kind of prejudice towards people of other religions or cultures without even knowing who they are.”

Over the past year, JCARR has resettled a family from the Congo and, on Election Day, a Syrian family.

Among the JCARR volunteers is Peter Stolzman, a member of Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven who first got involved in refugee resettlement in the early ‘80s. At that time, his synagogue was part of the Amity Welcoming Committee, an interfaith group in the Orange-Woodbridge area that resettled two families from Laos after the Vietnam War had ended. His motivation reflects the immigration experience of most American Jews.

“Why do I do it? There is no easy answer,” says the retired high school social studies teacher. “My grandfather Stolzman came to this country from Germany in 1921. He wasn’t escaping violence, although the rest of his family was eventually wiped out. But he was saved by coming to this country; he was able to get whatever start and security he needed. The United States has not always had open, welcoming arms, but there has been an opportunity here for people, and I’ve never been able to get over that. I think that we, as a country, need to do whatever we can to uphold that tradition of welcoming and giving people an opportunity to succeed and survive. I think back to my own family and God knows what would have been if that opportunity wasn’t afforded to us. Also, within my Judaism, there are so many passages that make me feel that this is my moral obligation, like ‘Whoever saves one life saves the world.’ I may not be saving the world but I am making a small difference on my own and I just feel a moral imperative to get involved. For my frame of reference, it’s the most important thing and I try to live my life that way. This is an opportunity for me to do that.”

Stolzman helped out with Russian-Jewish resettlement, and then joined an interfaith group in his Branford community to welcome an Iraqi family fleeing the war in that country.

“When the family arrived, I had the interpreter ask them if they had any problem working with Jews,” he recalls. “If they said, ‘No, we don’t like Jews,’ I was perfectly willing to say, ‘Good luck in the United States’ and just walk away. But when my question was translated, the father looked at me and said, ‘Why would I have a problem? You’re trying to help me.’”

Stolzman joined JCARR when news of the war in Syria flooded the airwaves.

“I saw the tremendous disruption in the world and people who, through no fault of their own, were being pushed aside and were in great danger,” he says. “I felt that I had to do something.”

This impetus to simply take action in the face of suffering is at the heart of many advocates’ stories.

“For me, there was no question,” says Rabbi Michael Friedman of Temple Israel in Westport, one of seven houses of worship involved in Westport Interfaith Refugee Settlement (WIRS), an offshoot of the Westport-Weston Interfaith Council, composed of clergy and lay leaders. Over the summer, WIRS welcomed a Syrian refugee family to the community.

“For years now, we have seen absolutely heartbreaking photos and stories of destruction in Syria and in other places and we feel so far removed from that. I felt helpless: what can I possibly do here in Connecticut to make the situation better? I or we may not be able to rebuild Aleppo but we can help one family and that’s small, but it’s significant. To me, this was the way to take action on a significant global crisis here,” says Friedman.

And here, in much of the Connecticut Jewish community, the memory of the immigrant experience has faded into ignorance and apathy.

“Some of our grandparents or great-grandparents might have been refugees; there are people in our community who were refugees from the former Soviet Union,” Friedman says. “But in general, most of our community is so far removed from that, and yet it’s part of our historical memory and historical identity. It’s all too easy for those of us who live comfortable lives to forget that. But we live those comfortable lives because, at some point, this country or individuals in this country were willing to take us in.”

Some Jews opposed or indifferent to refugee resettlement raise the specter of the harsh U.S. immigration policies in place during the Holocaust.

“While people are right that America could and should have done much more during the Second World War and in the years leading up to it, and so many individuals would have been spared if the United States had done more then, one reason the U.S. didn’t do more was that there weren’t enough stronger voices agitating on behalf of the vulnerable people who needed our help,” says Rabbi Rachel Safman of Congregation Beth El in New London. “If we recreate that scenario by sitting silent or even actively opposing the provision of aid to the vulnerable people in our own day, we’re ensconcing that pattern of sitting by and allowing terrible, unspeakable evils to befall other human beings; we’re complicit in their suffering.”

Safman is involved in Start Fresh, an interfaith refugee-resettlement initiative created earlier this year by the Greater New London Clergy Association. She stresses that she participates as a private citizen, not as a representative of her congregation, which has differing views on the effort.

“We know more than anybody else what it means to be a people without a country to which we can return,” Safman says. “Thank God, we now have Israel; God willing we’ll never again be a people who don’t have a country to which we can return. But a Syrian displaced from Syria or a Sudanese displaced from the Sudan doesn’t have another country that will necessarily take them in and give them a chance to rebuild their lives on a stable, sure basis, just because they are who they are. They’re turning to this country that has said – quoting a Jewish immigrant – ‘Give us your tired, your poor, your hungry.’ This country is built on the premise that it’s a society to which one can subscribe even if you are not born into it and a society that endeavors to see the best and the potential in every human being. That doesn’t mean that we can simply throw open our doors to any person who can buy a bus, plane, train ticket to get here, and we shouldn’t allow unlimited immigration without any sort of cap or filtering and scrutiny of those who are coming. But I put a great deal of faith in the State Department and the processes that they go through to screen refugees.”

Drawing on Jewish texts, Safman has made the case to naysayers that Jews are called upon not only to do no harm to strangers, but to proactively reach out and protect them.

“Very often, refugees are people living an orderly middle- or upper middle-class life that is suddenly turned on its head by an upsurge of violence targeting them and people like them. They are forced to flee with minimal possessions and they are lucky just to be alive, and they turn to this country as a place where they can rebuild their lives. … That’s my family’s story and certainly the story of so many people in my community. If that story doesn’t speak to us, then something’s wrong with us as human beings and as Jews.”

Nancy Kline, a member of the Congregation Or Shalom social action committee, sums up this idea in two sentences. “Helping others is part of social action, and I believe that it is our highest duty to help others,” she says. “It could be my family trying to escape from somewhere, so I want to express my gratitude by helping these families.”

Jews must help refugees because we are commanded to do so. But, says Rabbi Greg Wall, “Being compassionate does not mean being stupid. Take a step back and say, ‘How do we do this in a way that we’re not putting ourselves at risk unnecessarily?’”

Wall points to a surprising statement in the Gemara that pops up in a discussion about the legacy of Rabban Gamliel and his students, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, and Rabbi Akiva: “Always consider strangers as burglars and at the same time, honor them as if each one of them were Rabban Gamliel himself.”

“This is the challenge: we can never let our guard down but at the same time, we have to honor people as we would someone deserving of respect,” Wall says. “It’s an oversimplification and the Gemara gives us the source of this saying, but it presents both sides: it would be foolish to not consider a stranger as a possible threat. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to give people respect.”

This value motivates refugee-resettlement volunteers like Peggy Zamore and Melinda Weber, co-chairs of the social action committee at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, a synagogue involved in the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT). An offshoot of the Wilton Clergy Association’s interfaith lunch and learn program, the group formed at a time when some two million Iraqi refugees had fled war and sectarian violence in their country. Working together with IRIS, Wi-ACT helped resettle an Iraqi family in 2010. In March, Wi-ACT and the Wilton community welcomed a Syrian widow and her five children.

“Our Jewish feeling is that you help one person, you help the world,” says Zamore. “To me, that’s what this is about. We put a lot of energy into the Syrian family, and we’re helping six people start new lives. Even though it takes a lot, it’s worth it because this is who we are and people helped us along the way and this is a way of giving back.”

While Jewish communities continue to deliberate over welcoming the Muslim stranger, one thing is certain, says Rabbi Greg Wall.

“In essence, we have to try to make it work,” he says. “We can’t say, ‘No, we can’t have this type of refugee.’ So then it becomes a question of how we continue to align our American values in concert with our Jewish values, which are to be empathetic and to be proactive in guaranteeing people the right to have the same freedom as we have without putting ourselves, our neighbors, our children at risk. But to simply say ‘no’ without looking for a solution is not an acceptable answer. The price you pay for freedom is a little vulnerability. I think, ultimately, it’s a low cost.”

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