The Syrian refugee crisis keeps Rabbi Jennie Rosenn up at night. However for her, the worry goes beyond personal concern to professional responsiblity. As the relatively new vice president for community engagement at the refugee assistance organization HIAS, she is tasked with mobilizing the American Jewish community in the face of the world’s largest refugee situation since World War II.

Before arriving at HIAS in 2014, Rosenn, 47, played a leading role in the field of Jewish service as the director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“I moved to HIAS and refugees because I sought to get closer to the ground on a real issue,” Rosenn said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

The timing was auspicious, as the global refugee crisis could not be more urgent than it is right now, with the events of the last months having made Rosenn’s job easier — and also much harder.

On one hand, Americans’ attention was captured by media coverage last year of more than a million Syrian and other Middle Eastern migrants and refugees making perilous sea journeys to reach European shores, and flooding across borders on foot. And after photos of drowned three-year-old Kobani-born Alan Kurdi were shared widely on social media, sympathy grew further for the refugees.

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, September 2, 2015. (AP/DHA)

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, September 2, 2015. (AP/DHA)

Then came the backlash with the Islamist terror attacks on Paris on November 13. Many Americans — Jews among them — started to question the prudence of letting Middle Eastern refugees enter the country. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the US, and some governors threatened to close their states’ borders to refugees.

On November 19, less than a week after the Paris attacks, the House of Representatives passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies SAFE Act. (The proposed law, which would have effectively shut down the United States’ refugee resettlement program, was subsequently defeated in the Senate on January 20 of this year.)

Engaging the Jewish community on a grassroots level

Against this contentious backdrop and a growing fear of Muslim immigrants, it has been Rosenn’s task to engage American Jews with HIAS and the refugee issue, primarily in the area of advocacy aimed at significantly increasing the number of refugees allowed into the US.

“We’ve always had a team in DC doing policy work. It’s important that we interface directly with the government, but also to do grassroots advocacy,” Rosenn told The Times of Israel.

For the past two years, the US has capped refugee resettlement at 70,000 per annum. In September, the Obama Administration announced that it would increase that number to 100,000 per year by 2017. Last fall, HIAS and its Refugee Council USA partners asked for an additional 100,000 refugees per year, a request they have somewhat backed off from, given the more charged climate in recent weeks.

To date, only 2,647 of 4.5 millions displaced Syrians have arrived in the US since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

Thousands of Syrian refugees crossing into Iraq on August 15, 2013. (photo credit: AP/HO)

Thousands of Syrian refugees crossing into Iraq on August 15, 2013. (photo credit: AP/HO)

According to a strategy devised by Rosenn, she and her staff work with congregations, lay leaders and rabbis to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee issue on both the Jewish and national agendas.

Last fall HIAS collected 6,000 signatures on a petition calling not only for expanded refugee resettlement, but also increased financial support for refugee camps in the Middle East. It also proposed the prioritization of a solution to the Syrian crisis.

In addition, a December 2 HIAS letter signed by more than 1,250 American rabbis was delivered to all members of Congress and printed as a newspaper ad. Invoking the biblical commandment to welcome the stranger and the ill-fated 1939 voyage of Jewish refugees from the Nazis on the St. Louis, the letter warned lawmakers not to confuse an actual enemy with the victims of that enemy.

The letter made an impression in the corridors of power. A few days later, President Obama mentioned HIAS twice in his remarks at the annual White House Hanukkah party, and a HIAS client lighted the menorah. Rosenn herself received the honor of lighting the menorah at the event’s afterparty hosted by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee.

From Jewish immigrants to the US to global refugees

New York-based HIAS is the only Jewish organization whose mission is to assist refugees wherever they are in the world. It is also the only Jewish voluntary resettlement agency (VOLAG) in the US.

Founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS has helped 4.5 million people escape persecution. It was instrumental in settling every wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, from the late 19th century onward.

Fifteen years ago, following the resettlement of the final large group of Jews leaving the Former Soviet Union, HIAS expanded its work to also assist non-Jewish refugees globally.

The organization operates in nine countries in addition to the US: Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Israel, Ukraine, and Austria. It employs 700 people (70 in the US), the vast majority of whom are locals and third-country nationals.

A HIAS representative visits with a Colombian refugee family in Ibarra, Ecuador, receiving psychosocial and humanitarian assistance from HIAS including food, rent and education. (Carlos Carrillo/HIAS)

A HIAS representative visits with a Colombian refugee family in Ibarra, Ecuador, receiving psychosocial and humanitarian assistance from HIAS including food, rent and education. (Carlos Carrillo/HIAS)

Funded by federal grants from the US Department of State and the US Department of Health and Human Services, the UNHCR and private contributions, HIAS aims to protect, resettle and advocate for refugees. It offers refugees a variety of free services, including legal assistance for gaining their rights and becoming identified for resettlement. It also provides psychosocial support (especially for trauma and gender-based violence), as well as vocational training and help in identifying employment opportunities.

Working with some 20 partner agencies, HIAS helps resettle refugees in the US. With only one percent of the world’s 59.5 million refugees and internally displaces persons ultimately resettling in a third country, HIAS works toward other durable solutions for refugees, including repatriation and integration into the countries to which the refugees have fled.

HIAS distributes food to thousands of refugees every month at Djabal camp in Goz Beida, Eastern Chad. (Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

HIAS distributes food to thousands of refugees every month at Djabal camp in Goz Beida, Eastern Chad. (Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

Unlike some Jewish and Israeli organizations, HIAS is not working on the ground in Europe with Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees who have made there own way there. Instead, it is addressing the push factors in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon that are causing the flight to Europe.

“I think it’s wonderful that there are Jewish and Israeli groups and individuals on the ground in Europe. I hope they will take their passion for the refugee issue back home and will work to make Israel and the US more welcoming to refugees,” Rosenn remarked.

Countering misinformation and toxic rhetoric

According to Rosenn, around 1,000 American Jews, motivated by High Holiday sermons on the refugee crisis by hundreds of rabbis (many of them incorporating material prepared by Rosenn and her team), have contacted HIAS asking to volunteer with the Syrian refugees. Many were surely inspired by news of Canadian synagogues and schools preparing to sponsor Syrian refugee families set to land in Montreal and Toronto in late 2015 and early 2016.

However, some Jewish congregations became less eager to engage following the Paris attacks and other incidences of Islamist terror in the US and Israel later in the fall. This came despite public statements in support of refugees and against bigotry and inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric from prominent Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Orthodox Union.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called on December 7, 2015 for a 'total and complete shutdown' of Muslims entering the U.S. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called on December 7, 2015 for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ of Muslims entering the U.S. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“Everyone is afraid of terrorism. The problem is that the fear became misplaced due to misinformation, which is amplified by politicians. There is a real lack of understanding of how the US resettlement program works,” Rosenn said.

‘Everyone is afraid of terrorism. The problem is that the fear became misplaced due to misinformation’

“We’ve been doing a lot of educational work about this, about the prioritization of the most vulnerable refugees and the multiple security screening layers that refugees must go through while still in the Middle East. It takes 18 to 24 months from the point that a refugee is identified for resettlement until they actually enter the US,” she added. Rosenn also emphasized that refugees go through a cultural orientation program as part of the resettlement program.

Rosenn believes that anti-refugee rhetoric can be very toxic. The SAFE Act may have been defeated, but she warned this does not mean that there won’t be other attempts at anti-immigration legislation.

“We as Jews know just how dangerous this rhetoric can be. And we also know historically that in our country’s more glorious moments, it has been able to overcome this fear and suspicion,” she added optimistically .

Staying the course on the refugee issue

In Rosenn’s view, the American Jewish community, cognizant of Jewish history and animated by Jewish texts, has awoken to the refugee issue.

“This is a profoundly Jewish issue and this is an historic moment. Never before have Jews not been refugees, but rather in a position to help refugees. Jews want to respond,” she said.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, HIAS Vice President for Community Engagement, speaks at Auburn Seminary’s 2014 Lives of Commitment Awards Benefit Breakfast, where she was honored for her work. (Courtesy of Auburn Seminary)

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, HIAS Vice President for Community Engagement, speaks at Auburn Seminary’s 2014 Lives of Commitment Awards Benefit Breakfast, where she was honored for her work. (Courtesy of Auburn Seminary)

However, it is not always simple to match how people want to help with the kind of help that is really needed. With so few Syrian refugees in the country at this time, there is no need for the hands-on welcoming and sponsorship activities that are currently being done north of the border.

One option for American Jews who have offered to raise money, collect household items, find housing and employment, or help with English lessons for Syrian refugees, is for them do these things for refugees from other countries who are already in the US.

Alternatively, they can dedicate themselves to the grassroots advocacy that Rosenn identifies as so critical. It is the long-term work done over time that will hopefully eventually pay off in a big way, she said, as was the case with the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s through 1980s.

“American Jews need to be patient and demonstrate staying power on the refugee issue. We need to be a loud and unwavering voice,” Rosenn said.