As Anti-Refugee Sentiment Builds, Jewish Agencies Push for Settlement

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As debate rages in Congress over the settling of Syrian refugees in the United States, Jewish agencies and community members are stepping up to assist those who have made it to our shores.

By Melissa Apter and Suzanne Pollak
 
WASHINGTON — As debate rages in Congress over the settling of Syrian refugees in the United States, Jewish agencies and community members are stepping up to assist those who have made it to our shores.
 
Last Friday, Corine Dehabey, resettlement officer with Us Together, welcomed the 11th Syrian refugee family to arrive in Toledo, Ohio, through her HIAS-affiliated agency this year. 
 
When Us Together receives a call, Dehabey springs into action. In as little as 24 to 48 hours, Dehabey has to find refugees a place to live, furniture and food, schedule health assessment appointments and get ready to guide the new family through the Social Security offices so they can get identification cards to then apply for jobs and family services. 
 
Local churches have been a good resource, she said, and recently the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo has offered assistance through its food bank.
 
The Syrians, when they get here, “are excited. It’s a weird feeling. It’s totally a new world for them. They are very grateful to the American government,” said Dehabey. “They want to make the best of their lives.”
 
“They’d love to stay in Syria, and they pray and hope that their country will heal and they can go back, but realistically, they know that can’t happen right now, so they’re with us in this fight against extremism,” said Deborah A. Drennan, ex-officio executive director of Freedom House Detroit, which works with asylum seekers.
 
Drennan said that the fear displayed by the more than half of U.S. governors, including of her own state, who have called on the Obama administration to halt plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States is unfounded. She called the concerns of anti-refugee politicians like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) nothing more than “Islamophobia.”
 
“People are afraid that they’re going to bring with them a terrorist lifestyle and not understanding that they’re trying to flee that violence,” said Drennan, whose organization has partnered in the past with Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.
 
Catholic Charities and the local Muslim community, she said, have played a large role in resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq. 
 
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, some 7,014 Syrian refugees have been interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, but only 2,034 have been resettled in the United States, according to numbers released by the White House. A total of 23,092 Syrians have been referred to the United States Refugees Admission Program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 
 
HIAS, whose motto is “welcome the stranger, protect the refugee,” was founded in 1881 to help Jews who were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.
 
“We’ve been helping to connect local congregations” with refugee families coming to their area, said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement at HIAS in New York. 
 
She noted that there has been an uptick in inquiries and “the community is starting to wake up” and get involved. 
 
Congregations, perhaps, have been spurred to action by the numerous High Holiday addresses dedicated to welcoming the stranger.
 
“I urge you to lobby on behalf of these people. Pick up the phone or get on the computer and tell our nation’s leaders that we must offer our resources and shores to those who are running away from evil,” said Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.
 
Following the conclusion of Yom Kippur, information on how to contribute to HIAS and other methods of assisting Syrian refugees was sent to Singer-Beilin’s congregation via email at the associate rabbi’s urging.
 
Rabbi Lance Sussman, senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, is a trustee of IsraAID, which aims to “help Israel, help humanity.” The group focuses on intervention, primarily in Jordan, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees during the ongoing conflict. 
 
As a trustee on the organization’s North American board, Sussman is trying to build up the organization and solicit donations for the lifesaving work IsraAID conducts in Jordan, Turkey and the shores of Greece.
 
Rabbi Jonathan Roos of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., spoke to his congregation about the need to assist Syrian refugees through the lens of Jewish law and tradition.
 
“All the parts of our ritual life remind us of our experience as slaves in Israel [and the commandment] to protect and care for strangers,” said Roos.
 
To that end, Temple Sinai has been working on the issue of refugees since 2014. Last year, when large numbers of Central American refugees were coming into the United States, 10 Temple Sinai members went down to Texas and paired with another Reform congregation to conduct relief work. Back home, a grant from the Gendler Grapevine Project enabled Temple Sinai to run the Open Door: Helping Refugees and Immigrants Initiative.
 
Though Temple Sinai cannot directly sponsor refugee families, as congregations in Canada currently are, Roos pledged that his congregation will do all it can to provide assistance to refugees and local agencies.
 
Invoking the lessons of the Holocaust and the Passover story, Roos added: “Our own historical experience reminds us and points to the need to empathize, understand and support the people who are in the same position.” 
 
Suzanne Pollak writes for Mid-Atlantic Media.