Twenty-one-month old Elisa, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived in the United States in November with her parents, is already calling her new Jewish neighbors “auntie” and “uncle.” She and her family have been welcomed to a suburban New Jersey town by members of the Jewish community. They are part of a national "Welcome Circle" program sponsoring Afghan refugees under the auspices of HIAS, the 100-year-old agency originally founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the only Jewish agency that works with the American government to implement the refugee admissions program. The circles are now expanding to help refugees from the Ukraine.
“It was very difficult to leave the country you’ve spent your entire life in, to leave your family,” said Ali, 28. “I still tear up and get mad about how much I’m missing home.” Dina and Ali are Shiite Muslims, and while Ali noted that he had met Jews at the embassy where he had worked, he said that “something like this, where people would sit together, break bread, share a meal and talk—that didn’t happen before.” Religion is not a factor in determining whether a person is good or bad, he added. “For me and my family, what matters is humanity.”
I was proud to meet this tenacious Afghan family and the loving members of the Jewish community who are supporting them for my article in Hadassah magazine. Read the full story here.
The plight of refugees is more poignant than ever today as scenes of devastation and despair from Ukraine rivet world attention. The crisis continues as Jews prepare to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year the evening of June 4 and models the Jewish responsibility of welcoming strangers, such as the biblical Ruth, into our midst. The United Nations reports that more than 6.5 million people have fled Ukraine and more than 7 million have become internally displaced since the Russian invasion began in late February. President Joseph Biden has announced that up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine will be welcomed in the United States.
Synagogues and other Jewish groups across the country have historically mobilized resources to help refugees, from Vietnamese in the 1970s to Soviet Jews through the 1990s to Syrian refugees from 2014 to 2016. Today, their efforts to welcome strangers who need support continue to unfold in inspiring ways.
For centuries, India, too, welcomed strangers fleeing persecution. Jews escaping Hellenist persecution around the time of the Maccabees were shipwrecked off the coast of Bombay: the nascent Bene Israel community. Refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal fled to Cochin, in South India. And Jews fleeing persecution in Baghdad at the beginning of the 1800s found refuge in Bombay and Calcutta.
India's history of tolerance and lack of any indigenous antisemitism serves as a remarkable legacy for its Jewish communities and serves as a paradigm for interfaith living. That's especially poignant and noteworthy given the climate of the world today.
Learn more during on our virtual tour of Jewish India tonight, June 2, at 8 pm ET, sponsored by a national synagogue consortium. Register here.
Hag sameah and tizkoo l'shanim rabot!