'We cannot be bystanders, because we are Jewish'

Week before synagogue massacre, HIAS led Jewish groups in ‘Refugee Shabbat’

Gunman who murdered 11 in Pittsburgh decried HIAS Shabbat program; accused 137-year-old Jewish immigrant resettlement organization of bringing ‘invaders to kill our people’

Mourners take a moment at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)
Mourners take a moment at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

NEW YORK — Last weekend, seven New York City congregations came together to mark the end of Shabbat not in a synagogue, but in a Methodist church on the Upper West Side that serves as “host sanctuary” for Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

From October 18-19, members of the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis organized an interfaith havdalah service for National Refugee Shabbat — a campaign of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. The initiative was participated in by 270 synagogues all over the United States.

“The National Refugee Shabbat will raise and elevate the issue of the contemporary global refugee crisis,” Rebecca Kirzner, director of campaigns for HIAS, told The Times of Israel last week.

Seven days later, the issue of HIAS’s refugee aid became all too resonant as shortly before 10 a.m., a gunman entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and rained bullets on the attendees, killing 11 people — all adults. The Anti-Defamation League described it as the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history.

An active member of a Twitter-like network for the alt right, Gab, the gunman Robert Bowers reportedly yelled “all Jews must die.” Just prior to the shooting he also posted on the site, “HIAS likes to bring invaders to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Law enforcement run with a person on a stretcher at the scene where multiple people were shot, Saturday, October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

In 2017, HIAS placed 122 refugees in the Pittsburgh area and an additional 42 in the recently closed fiscal year.

Bowers has followed HIAS activities closely: Less than 20 days ago, the Pittsburgh shooter also posted a link about the event on Gab and wrote, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?… We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.” (The Refugee Shabbat was co-sponsored by national Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council on Jewish Women.)

HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is a global Jewish nonprofit that aims to protect refugees. Founded in the 1880s, then the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was a shelter and resource for newly arrived Jewish immigrants. During and after World War I and the Holocaust, it worked to resettle waves of Jewish refugees. Later, it took a leading role in the movement to free and resettle Soviet Jewry. The families of musician Regina Spektor and actress Mila Kunis were both aided by HIAS during this era.

A group holds a sign at the intersection of Murray Ave. and Forbes Ave. in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh during a memorial vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue where a shooter opened fire, killing 11 and wounding six, including four police officers, Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

However, as the waves of Jewish immigration slowed to a trickle in the 2000s, HIAS began resettling non-Jewish refugees as well. Now it is one of nine agencies tasked with resettling refugees in the United States.

The National Refugee Shabbat was one effort among many for the organization to raise consciousness about the increasingly difficult situation refugees are facing in the country. Some 270 synagogues in 32 states all over the United States participated.

Mark Hetfield speaks at the havdalah ceremony at St. Paul and St. Andrews methodist church at New York City’s Upper West Side, as part of Refugee Shabbat, October 20, 2018. (Courtesy Refugee Shabbat/Synagogue Coalition)

“We cannot be bystanders, because we are Jewish,” said HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield at New York’s B’nei Jeshurun last week, describing the current situation of the refugee program as “a throwback to 1921,” when the United States Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act. That provision limited immigrants coming in to the US and gravely affected the American response when Jews were fleeing devastation in Europe.

To mark the organization’s personal involvement, at the back of the hall, information on volunteer opportunities in the refugee and immigration committees of participating synagogues and HIAS materials were available for attendees to take home, including a bookmark with the words “My People Were Refugees Too.”

In the recent federal fiscal year that ended October 1, America received its lowest number of refugees since President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980 — the legal precedent for today’s US Refugee Admission Program.

A total of 22,491 refugees were admitted in the 2018 fiscal year, less than the number of refugees America welcomed right after the 9/11 attacks, when former president George W. Bush halted the program for seven months. The message Hetfield delivered that Saturday was a “plea for compassion” for those fleeing conflict and violence from their own country.

HIAS is one of six faith-based resettlement agencies — and the only Jewish one — that the US government works with.

“It was our golden door that made us great, not our golden wall,” Hetfield said.

HIAS has asked the Trump administration to raise the admission ceiling to 75,000 for fiscal year 2019, from 45,000 in 2018. But on September 19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US will receive 30,000. It was another historic low.

US President Donald Trump arrives for a ‘Make America Great Again’ rally at Elko Regional Airport in Elko, Nevada, October 20, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

“This year’s refugee ceiling reflects the substantial increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in our country,” Pompeo said. He noted the “refugee ceiling number should not be viewed in isolation from other expansive humanitarian programs.” There are over 800,000 asylum seekers stateside.

The Global Trends Report of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees noted that there were 25.4 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2017, representing a 10 percent increase from the previous year, and the highest number since World War II.

“HIAS’s friends,” national Jewish organizations who endorsed the National Refugee Shabbat and favor higher refuge admissions, had strong sentiments on the current policy.

“NCJW has always supported sensible immigration policy and has helped new immigrants adjust to life in America. Therefore, we strongly oppose the low refugee admission ceiling in 2019,” said Nancy Kaufman, chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Robert Bank of the American Jewish World Service, said, “We cannot turn our backs on refugees who yearn for freedom. Tragically, the historically low refugee admission ceiling set by the Trump administration is not compatible with our values as Jews, Americans and supporters of human dignity.”

Rabbi Jonah D. Pesner. (Courtesy Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said in a statement that “this administration has abandoned the world’s most vulnerable people and is shirking our country’s long-established moral leadership within the international community.”

An uptick in Jewish involvement on refugee advocacy began in 2015 when images of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler whose lifeless body was washed ashore in the Greek island of Kos, went viral online after the boat carrying him and 11 other Syrian refugees capsized in the Aegean sea.

“The picture of the little boy was the first time the refugee crisis was brought to their eyes,” said Isabel Burton, HIAS director of community engagement programs. “For many people that was the moment when people started picking up the phone.”

This handout photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi shows Aylan Kurdi, left, and his brother Galib Kurdi. The body of 3-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi was found on a Turkish beach after the small rubber boat he, his 5-year-old brother Galib and their mother, Rehan, were in capsized during a desperate voyage from Turkey to Greece. (Photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi /The Canadian Press via AP)

Burton said that the National Refugee Shabbat is “to mark this work… going forward to something that connects back to Judaism, rather than rallies, [and] connecting back to Shabbat, [giving] us time to reflect on the work.”

Charlie Davidson, who is part of the Synagogue Coalition committee that organized the havdalah service, said he hopes that through the National Refugee Shabbat, the idea “to welcome a stranger is not just a teaching, but a real call to action.”

In a marked contrast to the massacre a week later in Pittsburgh, the Saturday night service concluding the Refugee Shabbat ended with a song, whose lyrics stated, “Open up in kindness, open up in love, open up in justice, let them in.”

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