Tornillo: “Shut It Down!” And the Commentary Is Important.

I was privileged to join a bold and visionary group of midwestern Reform rabbis — led by Rabbis Bruce Elder, Miriam Terlinchamp, Joshua Whinston, Jonah Zinn, and Todd Zinn — on a November pilgrimage  to the U.S.-Mexican border in and near El Paso, Texas. The centerpiece of that visit was at Tornillo, a tent-city detention facility for immigrant teenagers. A rally outside the Tornillo camp prominently featured the chant, “Shut It Down!”

I participated in the pilgrimage as the CCAR Board’s representative. I am not at all new to immigration activism — In June, for example, I was arrested, in a civil disobedience action related to immigration at the Arkansas Capitol as part of the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign. However, in mid-November, I didn’t yet feel fully comfortable as I joined the chants, “Shut It Down.”

Today, after further research, I am.

First, some words about my reluctance. Several years ago, URJ Greene Family Camp, one of my two cherished camp homes, had served as a facility where unaccompanied minor immigrants were housed. The nonprofit provider inside the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was also the provider at our camp. Moreover, our colleague, Rabbi Ben Zeidman, who is deeply committed to immigration justice, had visited inside the Tornillo camp with an interfaith clergy delegation which had found conditions to be acceptable. For a moving piece about the important work of Greene Family Camp in those days, please read these words by my friend and fellow Greene alum, Mandy Karp Golman.

The more I learned, though, the more I became convinced that the situation has changed. The facility at Tornillo must be promptly closed, the children detained there must be united with U.S. sponsors without delay, and we must strongly advocate against the establishment of  similar facilities.

During the summer, massive public outcry forced the Trump Administration to back down on its policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from the children who accompanied them. What most Americans still do not know is that teenage immigrants continue to be separated from responsible non-parental adults with whom they arrive at the border — most often older siblings, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. We must protest all family separations, absent evidence of abuse or significant felony charges. These separations have massively increased the numbers of supposedly “unaccompanied” minors now in U.S. detention.

Back in the days when URJ Greene Family Camp was partnering with BCFS, that nonprofit provider actively sought U.S. sponsors for the truly unaccompanied minors who were in federal custody. Today, government policy has dramatically curtailed BCFS efforts in this regard, putting teens and potential sponsors at great risk. Potential sponsors reasonably fear coming forward in the current environment, exposing them to potential deportation. In fact, the process of seeking sponsors often serves as “bait” to lure family members into processes that may result in their deportation.

The result is a massive multiplication in the numbers of incarcerated teens — and the length, perhaps indefinite, or until they turn eighteen and are eligible for deportation — whose only crime is arriving at our border, seeking freedom in the Land of the Free.

Torah is clear: “You must not oppress strangers, nor harm them” (Exodus 22:21). Our government is perpetrating grave, even permanent, damage, upon a massive and increasing number of young people at our border. For that reason, I am delighted that our Reform Movement has officially joined the Close Tornillo Coalition.

Now, you have the commentary. Let us all raise our voices to demand that our government “Shut It Down!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Israel Rabbis Social Justice

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge’

Jewish history is peppered by tragic events. These are just a few:

1182 – the expulsion of the Jews of France
1290 – the expulsion of the Jews of England
1306 – the great expulsion from France: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Belgium and Spain
1351 – large numbers of Jews infiltrate into Poland
1492 – the expulsion from Spain: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Central Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, including my own family, which is scattered in Austria, Italy, and Crete
1507 – the expulsion of the Jews of Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia
1881-1914 – hundreds of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Europe and the United States
1939 – the SS St. Louis, carrying 939 Jewish refugees, sails from country to country begging for asylum

We are all the children, grandchildren, and descendants of asylum seekers and refugees! Refugee-hood is embedded in the Jewish DNA and accordingly we cannot stand by and remain silent in the face of expulsion.

Israel is currently home to 26,563 asylum seekers from Eritrea, 7,624 from Sudan, and 2,638 from various other African countries. Of these, 7,000 are women; approximately 2,000 are victims of torture in Sinai and of trafficking in women; and approximately 1,500 are single men imprisoned at the Holot detention camp. The population of minors is around 5,000 – 7,000.

The Migration Authority is recruiting immigration inspectors who will be responsible for distributing deportation orders, organizing documents for “voluntary departure” and other administrative functions, and examining the RDC applications that have already been submitted. Since January 1, 2018, the authorities are not accepting any new asylum applications. In the present stage, children, women, and parents responsible for their children’s well-being are not to be deported.

When the authorities wish to foment hatred among the majority against a specific group, they accuse the group of constituting a threat to society at large: They are taking our jobs; they are parasites (or worse – a cancer in the back of the nation); they are criminals who are ruining our neighborhoods; they will take over the country; they are the reason for unemployment/crime/diseases, and so forth. Pharaoh made exactly the same allegations against the Children of Israel:

“And he said to his people: ‘See, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, in the event of war, that they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’” (Exodus 1:9-10)

The State of Israel was one of the sponsors of the UN Refugees Convention at a time when Europe was flooded with Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state.” Yet now Israel intends to deport thousands of asylum seekers from Africa who fled for their lives. By so doing, it is violating the Biblical commandment “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Israel plans to deport the asylum seekers to countries that are still recovering from bloodbaths and are not capable of absorbing an additional traumatized population.

As we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai we declared: “We will do and we will understand.” We undertook to observe the constitution that turns us into a nation. At that moment, not knowing that we ourselves would time after time find ourselves strangers in a strange land, we promised that in our own land we would show great love for the stranger.

In Exodus we read: You know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The word “stranger” appears 92 times in the Bible in various forms, underlining the sensitivity of Jewish tradition to the condition and status of the non-Jew. Now, as a sovereign people in our own land, we have forgotten this!

Some 90 years before Herzl wrote The Old New Land and the Jewish people began to dream of establishing its own state, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch commented: “Therefore beware – so the text warns – of making rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on that pure humanity that dwells in the heart of every human being per se. With any limitation in these human rights, a gate is opened to the whole horror of Egypt.” (Commentary on Exodus 22:20) Violating the rights of asylum seekers and deporting them to the unknown is the “horror of Egypt!”

And so, three Reform rabbis – Rabbi Susan Silverman, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, and Rabbi Tamara Schagas – have launched an initiative called Miklat Israel (“Israel refuge.”) The goal of the initiative is to urge the general public in Israel to defend asylum seekers facing lethal danger.

In just two weeks, 1,000 families and individuals from throughout Israel promised to hide asylum seekers. We also contacted the kibbutz movement and some 1,500 members of kibbutzim across the country have also agreed to help.

We are in regular contact with the leaders of the asylum seekers’ communities and are working in full cooperation with them. Jewish tradition demands that we cherish the sanctity of every human life, created in God’s image – and all the more so the lives of people liable to be deported to uncertainty and danger. We believe that the decision by the Israeli government to deport the asylum seekers is a grossly unlawful one, and that we must struggle to remove this proposal from the agenda of Israeli society.

We urge you, our sisters and brothers in North America and around the world, to join our campaign to defend the asylum seekers in Israel. Make your voices heard loudly and help us avert the evil decree. You can contact us at

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27)

Rabbi Nava Hefetz serves Miklat Israel, and is the Director of Education at Rabbis for Human Rights


Social Justice

Why I Do Not Mourn on Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, is a Jewish day of mourning associated with the Babylonian Destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in the year 586 BCE. It is also the day when the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. And, it is said, the Jewish expulsion from Spain took place on the 9th of Av, 1492.

I do not observe Tisha B’Av; I do not fast or mourn on that day. Events associated with Tisha B’Av may be considered disasters for some, but, to me, those events all demonstrate the remarkable resiliency of the Jewish people and the historic opportunities that might never have been realized without exile.

This year, I happened to be in Berlin the week of Tisha B’Av, and I found myself visiting the Pergamon Museum — specifically the Gates of Ishtar, the monumental gates to the ancient city of Babylon.

I stood at the Ishtar Gates in the Pergamon Museum. I imagined my ancestors in 586 BCE led into captivity from the modest backwater of Jerusalem, marching their way in the barren desert from the Jordan River to the Euphrates. Suddenly in the distance they saw in the intense sunlight, a brilliant blue, massive structure shimmering and rising out of the sands. They were led along that triumphal processional boulevard lined with walls decorated in brilliantly colored bas relief of mythical wild animals.

These gates were the first things the exiles of Jerusalem 586 BCE must have seen as they entered the great Capitol city of Babylon. Surely they were mourning their fate and doubting their future and the future of their people and faith. They had worshipped the Hebrew God in the Temple of Jerusalem. God “resided,” if you will, in the Holy of Holies built upon the Temple Mount. But all that was destroyed. To the conquered defeated captives it must have seemed that Judaism had come to an end at the hands of the mighty Babylonian army. But Judaism didn’t die. Instead, it was re-born.

Though they were in Exile from Jerusalem, it would be in Babylon that Judaism would undergo one of its earliest creative transformations. They discovered that the personal, tribal God of Judea could be encountered anywhere. God was universal, not limited to one earthly location.

Babylon was where they also developed major concepts of Jewish religion. There, Judaism began the slow transformation from Temple sacrifice to Torah, study, and synagogue. Rabbis and teachers would eventually replace a dynastic system of priests.

I was struck by the idea that here I was, 2,700 years later, standing at the reconstructed ruins of a mighty civilization, the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BCE, one could stand at the mighty Gates of Ishtar and imagine Babylon lasting forever. A Judean exile from destroyed Jerusalem would have been justified to put on sack cloth and ashes and assume that Judaism had come to a dead end. Yet here I was, a rabbi of Judaism, 2,700 years later, representing a vibrant culture and civilization. History allows for irony.

Many destructions and exiles would follow. Tisha B’Av marked the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the exile from Spain in 1492, but in every case, Judaism adapted and responded with creativity and innovation. Eventually the experience of exile brought much of the Jewish world to the shores of America.

The story of American Jewish life is truly remarkable.  There has never been in all history a more vibrant, dynamic, creative Jewish community than this one. This is not just the most prosperous and successful Jewish community, but America itself has achieved much of its own success due to our contributions—and the contributions of all its immigrants over these 600 some years. We have fully adopted the words of Jeremiah: “Seek the well-being of the city of exile. If it prospers, so too will you prosper.”

Exile has brought us to America. With its many flaws, this country has truly been a place of blessing, and, like Abraham, the Jewish people have blessed America with talent, energy, loyalty, and creativity. That is why I do not mourn on Tisha B’Av.

Let me now return to Berlin and the second week in August. I had a specific purpose for being in Germany this summer. A group of fifteen Reform rabbis went on a very short study mission organized by IsraAID, a remarkable organization focusing on disaster relief throughout the world. In Berlin, they are engaged in continuing aid and support for the refugee community and for those who serve them. This is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation.

It was a privilege to get to know the people from IsraAID. They were uniformly young, most under 30. They were Israeli Jews, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Druze Israelis, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We met American college kids spending their gap year as volunteers working with IsraAID on programs for the refugees as well as for German children learning about the stories of the exiles. There were some Jews of Berlin and Israelis living in Germany. There was one 85 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor who spends one day a week at a community center teaching German to Syrian children.

IsraAID workers are training others, teaching German, computer skills, helping with job searches, and childcare, offering much needed psychological support for those who have experienced the trauma of war and terrifying escape. We visited a community support center for LGBTQ refugees.

Who were these Syrian refugees? Our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes were often wrong. Many of them are middle class and educated. Many spoke English or German. Nearly all of them hoped to stay in Germany or Europe. While the Germans hoped the war would end and the Syrians could eventually return back home to the Middle East, most of these exiles wanted to begin a new life. Their greatest desire was to escape the terror and war.

Why do we care? Why would a bunch of young Israelis – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze – care about Syrian refugees? Why did a group of American Reform rabbis, from throughout the US, care about the refugees? It is our narrative, our story, our memory, our teaching. How do we remember our own past? Why do we remember our past? We were exiles. We were strangers in a strange land. We were outcasts in the Land of Egypt, and in countless lands since then. We remember the plight of exiles, dispossessed, and refugees. We are commanded to fight for the rights of the stranger, to protect the outcast, to provide for the homeless, the landless. We knew Egypt and Babylon, Rome and Spain.

And we must also remember our own experience in America. We know the results of fear and xenophobia which shut the gates to America after WW I and in the early 1920’s, and we are profoundly aware of the tragic consequence when America was not a shelter for the Jews of Europe about to be sent to their death. The arguments that were made then might seem familiar to us today. The echoes resonate in today’s headlines. There were those then who claimed that there might be dangerous spies or terrorists among the refugees from Europe. In the early years they pointed to Emma Goldman among the Jews, or Sacco and Vanzetti for Italians. The anti-immigration forces raised fears of organized crime or Irish terrorists. They said: Lock the gates. Turn inward. America First. In the late 1930’s, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin claimed that German spies might be hidden among the Jewish refugees attempting to escape Hitler and the Nazi death machine. They claimed that Jewish refugees were a danger to American security.

We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We trace our roots back to Babylon and Ur and Nahor, Aram Naharaim –the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah. Nahor is today a place where South Eastern Turkey meets Northern Syria. It is the region that today is Aleppo. It is now a place facing destruction, genocide, and death.

We too were wandering Arameans, outcasts and strangers. Let us never forget who we were and what we have been called to do and become…in order to remain partners with God in repairing the brokenness of this world, freeing the captive, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger. Abraham was commanded: “Lech lecha.” Leave Nahor, your land, your birthplace, the land of your fathers, and go to a new land. There I will bless you, and you shall, in turn, be a blessing. Today’s refugees from Nahor, Aleppo, and elsewhere must be rescued, welcomed, and resettled. May they too become a blessing.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon serves Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

News Social Justice Torah

Finding Refuge in Germany Today

The recent Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, is set as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land.  The text repeats the command (Deut. 4:41-43) in the book of Numbers (Num. 35:9 ff) to set aside three cities of refuge on each side of the Jordan, a total of six that will be for people to flee from avengers.  We read in Numbers that these cities are there for someone who kills another unintentionally.  For instance, we read in Deuteronomy (19:5), if two men go together to cut down trees, and the axe head flies off the handle, killing one of the men, the other one can flee to one of the cities of refuge for safety.

The Jewish concern for providing places of refuge continues throughout our history.  From the time of the Mishnah, over two thousand years ago, Jews have lived in fear of being held hostage, and the ransoming of captives was considered a cardinal mitzvah.  Indeed medieval synagogues had separate funds dedicated to the redemption of hostages taken by pirates, enemies of our people, or the state.  We understand the dangers of being an oppressed minority.  And many of our grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave their native lands and wandered stateless.

As we are commanded to understand the plight of our neighbors, our hearts go out to all people who are forced to leave their country, who seek refuge and safety and a new life in a new land.  It is part of the Jewish ethic that I teach and celebrate.

So I was pleased to learn about IsraAID, an Israel-based non-profit organization that reaches out particularly to address crises around the world.  IsraAID was there for the tsunami in Japan and for the 2014 ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and for relief following the earthquake in Nepal in 2015.  They take pride in being the first on the scene, the very first responders:  pulling people out of the rubble, helping the rubber boats filled with refugees land on Lesbos.  So for good reason they have added to their work assisting the refugees arriving in Germany.  IsraAID began its work in Germany in February, 2016, when there were 5-7,000 refugees arriving each day.  There are still 85,000 refugees still in Lesbos—trapped there, since the path to Europe has been closed.   By June and July this summer the number of refugees arriving in Germany had fallen to 500 arriving each day.  IsraAID works with the United Nations Commission on refugees and other groups in assisting the refugees, such as Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, Caritas.

The statistics of this enormous migration are staggering, if a bit confusing.  More than 50% of Syria’s population is displaced.  About 6.5 million people are refugees in Syria, and 4.8 million people displaced in other countries.  Around 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, and more than 3,700 migrants were reported to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety and a new life.  According to the U.N., there are almost 5 million “persons of concern,” or registered Syrian refugees.  But not all the refugees are from Syria.  They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.  From January, 2015, to March, 2016, the refugees arriving in Europe were just less than half from Syria; less than a quarter from Afghanistan, and 10% were Iraqi.  Who are these people?  What is their background?  Why did they flee?  How has the world helped them?

Recently I participated in a special mission sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis in North America.  We went to Berlin to learn about the refugees from Syria and other countries, their situation, plight, and how we might help.  We met with groups of refugees and those who help them:  aid workers from IsraAID, social workers and psychologists, government officials, staff at shelters, and representatives of the Berlin Jewish community.  We toured shelters and visited community centers reaching out to serve these refugees.   We met with leaders of IsraAID and the American Jewish Committee in Berlin to gain a deeper understanding of the response from the Jewish community.

I must confess that I did not have a good understanding of who the refugees are, or why they have left their homes, or what their needs are.  The numbers are overwhelming for us to consider, as well as for the communities of Germany and Sweden to assist and hopefully absorb.  I had thought of these migrants as uneducated victims of political turmoil in their homelands; that they were from tribes in the wilderness, although we all know that the populations of Damascus and Aleppo (both important in biblical and Jewish history) have been forced to flee.  Of all of Israel’s neighbors, I knew the least about Syria.  They were the most intransigent of enemies, the least likely to have any contact with the Jewish state.  Why, I wondered from time to time, are we interested in the plight of people form a nation that is technically still at war with Israel and has taken every opportunity to hurt the Jewish people?

These were not the refugees I met.  I learned that 86% of the Syrian refugees have secondary or university educations.  Most of these refugees are young—under 35 years old—and hoping to live in Germany or Sweden, where there are jobs and opportunities for education, as well as governmental assistance.  Over half the refugees are under 18, and 43% are under 14.  And I learned that those nations that have agreed to help are shouldering great burdens, while their neighbors watch from a distance.  Germany and Sweden have accepted over a million Syrian refugees, while the remaining 26 EU countries have offered just over 30,000 places, or 0.7% of the Syrian refugee population.  The United States has set aside all of 10,000 places.

There are more men than women whom we met and saw:  men who have braved the perilous journey, leaving their wives and children behind while they establish themselves and a place for their families.  There are 60,000 unaccompanied minor refugees in Germany.  The German nation, with a population of 80 million people, is seeking to help and absorb over one million refugees.  By comparison, the U.S., with a population of 320 million, has agreed to accept 10,000.

Let me tell you about a couple of the refugee men whom we met.  Wasim lived in Swaida, Syria, a center of Druze population near Damascus, once with a population of a million residents.  Now there are only 600 people left in his village.  In 1994 he graduated as a teacher of English at the age of 23, and he would like to teach in Germany.  Some time ago he protested against the Assad regime and thus needed to leave the country.  While he was waiting for his exit papers, he was kidnapped and learned that Isis was “at his door,” as he told us.  He applied for asylum a year ago, and his Syrian passport was taken away from him.  He is stateless, without a nationality.  He is 45 and left behind his wife and three children, aged 16, 11, and 8.  He made his way to Turkey, with his cousin—also an English teacher—where they contacted a smuggler who agreed to take them to Europe.  They spent several hours on a rubber boat from Turkey to Greece and then four days in Greece, before they made it to Germany.  (We learned that the journey from Turkey to Europe usually takes about a month.)  Once in Germany, Wasim spent eight months in three different shelters, including some time in a basketball stadium, remade to accommodate as many as 2,000 people.  Despite great odds, and a severe shortage of apartments in Berlin, he and his cousin have been able to rent a flat for €450/month.  To qualify for asylum, he needs to study German diligently and take a series of examinations to prove his proficiency.  He takes classes for 5 hours each weekday and has achieved considerable success, a couple of notches below where he would need to be to be approved as a translator.  He communicates with his wife and children each day via WhatsApp on his smartphone.  His great concern is that his 16-year-old son will not be able to immigrate to Germany once he reaches his 18th birthday, and the wait for asylum status can be over two years.

There was a law in Germany, as in many other western countries, reuniting families, which would have taken precedence in allowing him to bring his family from Syria.  But two months ago that law was changed and then challenged in the German courts so it is now in legal limbo.

We also met Wasim’s cousin, also a member of the persecuted Druze minority. who is also an English teacher by profession.  As he began to tell us his story, he broke down as he reflected on his wife and children who are trapped in Syria and live in constant danger.

We learned that the religious differences are very significant among these refugees.  The Muslims are of many different backgrounds and do not get along with the Druze, a minority, and less with the Yazidi refugees, who are not Muslim and whose beliefs have subjected them to persecution for centuries.  We also learned that despite German laws that guarantee free religious practice for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, Islam is not an official recognized religion by the German government– in part because the Muslim community is not organized.  While there have been Muslims living in Germany since the 1960s, most of them are from Turkey and came as “guest workers,” without wanting to become residents.  Their mosques are funded by Turkey, and they are seen as guests rather than integrated into German society.

Our group visited shelters where the refugees are housed.  The shelter I visited is in a former cigarette factory, a huge concrete building with very high ceilings.  This shelter houses around 600 refugees now, but could have 1,000 people, or even more.  Men, women, and families with children (There are more than 200 children in the shelter.) are housed in separate sections.  The refugees live in what we would call temporary cubicles, each one just large enough to fit in three bunk beds—six men or six women per cubicle.  There is no door to the cubicle and no ceiling and no place to keep personal effects.  Bathrooms and showers are located in another section.  All the residents, 600 of them, eat their meals at the same time.  We were in the huge dining room an hour before dinner, and the noise from just the early arrivals was almost deafening.  There are only 5 social workers on site to tend to the psycho-social needs of the residents.  Up until now (they are building cubicles for them to meet with residents), there were open hours for social workers to meet with residents in a spot in the dining room, without any privacy.  Many of the children are not able to attend school, where they would like to be, because there is no space for them in the school.

There is a considerable security presence, with lots of guards visible, yet the residents seem to pass in and out of the building and from section to section comfortably.  We learned that there has been crime in the shelter, mostly against the refugee residents or among rival religious groups.  Crime by immigrants has dropped 18% and crime within the shelter is down 10% this year.  While a fifth of Germans report that they fear these foreigners, hate groups in Germany represent less than 2% of the population.   At the same time, we were told that over one million Germans are currently volunteering with the refugees.  Unfortunately I must report that some in the German Jewish community are ambivalent about these new refugees.  While we learned that one congregation has volunteered to assist, we also heard several negative comments from Jewish community leaders about the refugees and the threat they supposedly posed.

There are dire needs:  shortage of social workers who are able to address the overwhelming needs of these refugees, so many of whom have just experienced great trauma and are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.  There are over 300 shelters in Berlin for these refugees.  As you would imagine, the burnout from these overworked social workers and counselors is pervasive.  There are even fewer social workers and counselors who speak Arabic, one reason that the assistance from IsraAID is so valuable.

As we learned about the background of these refugees (65-75% of whom are from Muslim countries), their harrowing journeys, their plight, and their fears and hopes, we were all moved.  We learned about the religious minorities among the refugees, the various backgrounds, and the complexities of their situations.  Why is IsraAID there—with its full-time staff in Germany of 8 people, including two social workers, and 5 summer college interns?  Because IsraAID believes in engaging Israelis to work with other peoples to improve our broken world.  IsraAID believes in connecting young Jews and young Jewish professionals in humanitarian work, to broaden their perspective.  IsraAID believes that the work and picture of caring Israelis will help Israel on the world scene.  IsraAID has partnered with USAID, UNICEF, and governments such as Japan and Greece and non-governmental organizations to provide humanitarian assistance throughout the world.  They are non-political, receive no funds from the Israeli government, and do not do their work for the good publicity it might engender.  Their work, their commitment, and their mission remains inspiring to me, as to our entire group.  They are not looking primarily for funding, since most of their funds come from large sources.  But they do need volunteers and especially they need for us to know about their work.

At the end of our mission, several of my colleagues were struck by the turn of history that Germany and Berlin in particular are now the places of refuge for so many fleeing violence and terror in their lands.  We marveled that a city that was so recently a place of terror for our people is now a place of safety and hope for our Arab cousins.  May the message of the need for cities of refuge that we read Va-et’chanan resonate in our lives today.  May we work together to repair our broken world.

Rabbi Fred Reiner serves Temple Sinai in Washington D.C. 

Social Justice

The Syrian Refugees and Germany: Not Their Story but Our Story

Each of us had different reasons for taking part in the CCAR Mission to Berlin. Among them were:

  • We cared about the refugee crisis and wanted to learn so that we could share the story, engage our congregants and communities with this issue and be part of an effective response.
  • We wanted to see and support a Germany that once cast refugees out and now was welcoming them in.
  • We saw ourselves in the refugee narrative. We have known too many exiles as a people and, in some cases, as part of our personal families.
  • We wanted to learn more about IsraAID and its efforts to bring people together in responding to global crises. Engaging with an Israeli organization that embodies the values of saving lives, humanitarianism, inclusion and building bridges across faiths and peoples was an experience we wanted to have and share.

The architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin created a fitting metaphor for my personal renewed engagement with this country that stole my father’s childhood and a significant portion of my family tree. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, designed the Jewish Museum of Berlin upon three underground axes reflecting the three life paths German Jews may have taken. One path led to a “Holocaust Tower” — an empty concrete silo where the only light and warmth comes from a small slit above. A second path, the Axis of Emigration, led to “the Garden of Exile” which is a disorienting maze of stone pillars on uneven ground in an outside garden. The third and final path, the Axis of Continuity, intersects with the two other paths taking the visitor through exhibits capturing nearly two millennia of German Jewish history. Our coming to Berlin was a collective commitment to be a part of that third axis: the continuity of German Jewish life.IMG_2291

Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the moral choice to open German’s borders to refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. They poured in by the tens of thousands swelling to more than one million. Germany quickly made makeshift shelters. We visited two shelters – one in an old city hall and another in a tobacco factory. Month by month improvements are being made but still the conditions are stark, cold and harsh.  At the Wilmersdorf Shelter, there are 1200 refugees (half of them children) with 60 toilets and 30 showers. Some stay for five days, some for five months, and some have been there since the day it opened on August 14, 2015.

Patrick Kingsley, in The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis writes that “In a way, the refugee crisis is a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s on
e caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than the refugees themselves.” Had all of the countries of the European Union shared the burden, absorbing the stream of migrants would be manageable. Had a system of resettlement been organized, chaos would have been curbed. Millions of refugees would not be stranded, despairing and overwhelming Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Kingsley notes, “Fear of social meltdown was used to create inertia – fear that became its own self-fulfilling prophecy.”

IMG_2299In Berlin, we connected with refugees. We had meetings and meals with a variety of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We heard of their fears of turning in their passports and not knowing if they’d ever hold them again; of their anxiety of waiting for papers that would grant them refugee status or render decisions that could lead to deportation; of pleading before judges; of weeping that reunification with families (and in some cases children) seems unlikely in the near future; and some were questioning, “Is Germany where I should stay?”

The citizens of Germany are caring – one million Germans volunteer with refugees. The citizens of Germany are worrying – about the economy and about security.  On one hand, the refugees are vulnerable as victims of exploitation or violence and, if integration is unsuccessful, they are vulnerable to radicalization. On the other hand, they can enrich German society as the birthrate is low, there is a labor gap and these refugees are highly educated.

IsraAID is strategizing and working hard. Integration of refugees is a critical concern. Programs are being created to maximize integration at community centers outside the shelters. Israeli Jews, Israeli Druze, and Israeli Palestinians are helping side by side. American summer college interns are building bridges of social support. Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin, in reflecting upon the potential of her congregation’s engagement, notes: “Refugees need to reorient themselves. If, in this moment of reorientation, we can help reorient them to the idea of Jews and even perhaps Israel — that can be transformative.”

And we, as North American rabbis, have an important role, as well. We are players in this global narrative of creating sanctuary and safety for the Syrian and other Middle Eastern victims IMG_2311seeking refuge from war, oppression, murder, and in some cases, genocide. With education, with programs, with engagement, with advocacy, with fundraising, and with welcoming refugees into our communities and country, we can make a difference.

The Syrian refugee story continues to be written day by day and we can have a hand in crafting its positive outcome.

Rabbi Judith Schindler is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Convention Israel

Strangers in a Strange Land – Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers in Israel

So often when we travel to Israel we expect to see ‘the best’ of what the country has to offer. We see beautiful landscapes and architecture and eat at our favorite falafel stand. We stock up on kippot and other Judaica and we feel good about contributing to the Israeli economy. We feel good about being ‘b’aretz‘ in the land.

One of the special aspects of a CCAR Convention in Israel is the opportunity to do all of that but also go much deeper into the psyche of this modern state. My love for Israel is consistent and true and I am always wanting to understand the nuances of her character. Like a beloved friend, I am not afraid to unearth flaws. Rather, I desire to know this country for all that it is: a miraculous Nation State trying to figure out how ‘to be’ in this world.

While the world is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, not a tremendous amount of attention is being paid to the almost 65,000 African Asylum seekers who have crossed into Israel in the last 10 years. They are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea and are part of a population of about 230,000 foreign laborers in Israel who mostly work in agriculture, home care and construction.

The laws concerning foreign laborers and asylum seekers have been uneven and inconsistent. International migrant workers, or Foreign workers as they were called, were originally recruited during the intifada of the 1990s when Palestinians were not permitted to work in Israel. But importing workers from other countries is different than having workers who go home at night and the strain on the societal infrastructure became noticeable as numbers of workers increased. While there have been deportations over the years and an ebb and flow in numbers, at this time, Israel faces a humanitarian and legal crisis as it tries to figure it how to deal with the fact that there are people in the world who seek to live and work in this country who are not Jewish and who are not Palestinian.

While the Israeli government does not now deport foreign workers, it also does not grant them refugee status. Instead they receive Group Temporary Protection. This does not include work visas. The laws and systems are confusing and many people live in abject poverty, overwhelmed by the bureaucratic system that envelopes them.

Yet over the course of our program on Migrant Workers and Asylum seekers today, we got a sense of what is being done on the ground to help them. Most inspiring was a visit to Bialik Rogozin School where Eli Nechama and his staff transform the lives of their at risk students. Children from fifty one countries and many faiths are educated, and inculcated with a sense of excellence, pride and hope. An academy award winning film about this school, “No Strangers Here” tells their story. As a group of young students sang to us of peace in sweet clear voices, we could not help but be moved by the amazing impact their school has had on them and their future. Another hopeful encounter was with the staff of Hotline for Refugee and Migrants. Through client services, detention monitoring and legal action the Hotline works to create a just asylum system and a rights based approach to migration law and policy. A staff worker showed us around South Tel Aviv and shared some of the challenges of the migrant populations.

When it was all over, the question was whether we were angry or hopeful or maybe something else. It’s hard to think of the State of Israel treating innocent people who have left dangerous homelands in search of safety and freedom in ways that are harsh and in many ways in humane. After all have we as a people not also been in such a situation too many times in our history? I acknowledge this challenge, and yet, as is often the case on these programs, I walk away sobered but also inspired by the individuals, NGOS and communities that are creatively and passionately working on the ground to solve these societal problems. Teachers and volunteers dedicate enormous energy to help migrant kids, some of whom have never received any formal schooling prepare for bagrut. Staff and volunteers at places like Hotline passionately intervene with the State to protect the well being and future of total strangers. People who cook food or donate clothing and supplies, who teach Hebrew and English and who befriend those who are ‘strangers in a strange land’ feel a sense of obligation as Jews and as human beings.

Israelis never cease to be inspiring to me, and so too despite her flaws is Israel as well.

Rabbi Mara S. Nathan serves Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. Mara serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.