Three years ago, Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Congregation was observing Refugee Shabbat. It was their commitment to refugees that attracted the hatred of a violent criminal, who broke into the congregation and murdered eleven of its members. We continue to reel in the aftershock of this terrible crime, and we also continue to stand for the values that came under attack that day. Our congregation was also observing Refugee Shabbat at that time, and our resolve has only strengthened in the years since. Even when our community is under attack for what we believe--especially when our community is under attack for what we believe--we stand up for our values and push for them in the public square. So on this anniversary of Refugee Shabbat, our congregation announces our ongoing and burgeoning efforts to support and mentor a refugee family that will be resettled in Chicago in the new year.
Standing for Refugees
This weekend three years ago, our congregation joined synagogues across America in observing Refugee Shabbat. This annual tradition is sponsored by HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement agency, and is an opportunity for Jewish communities to observe the Torah’s commandment: “love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Our congregation participated in a city-wide program called the Jews for Refugees Assembly, which drew religious leaders, civil officials, friends and neighbors from across Chicagoland to demonstrate our support for the most vulnerable people on earth.
This weekend three years ago, another synagogue was observing Refugee Shabbat as well: Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation. It was the synagogue’s open and enthusiastic support of refugees that summoned the violent hatred of a criminal gunman. Following several social media posts specifically denouncing HIAS—and targeting Jews, immigrants, and Muslims in general—the shooter invaded the peaceful congregation and murdered eleven people. Tonight, we will recite their names for Kaddish.
The shooting in Pittsburgh was a tragedy with far-reaching, traumatizing impact. Jews and non-Jews alike reeled at the brutality of the attack, which was hauntingly echoed five months later in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and a month after that in the Chabad of Poway, CA. Jews and Muslims found themselves, once again, sharing the spotlight as hated minorities.
It’s a horrible shame—but it’s true nonetheless—that antisemitism and Islamophobia bring Muslims and Jews closer together. It’s also a horrible shame—but true nonetheless—that the more our values and our siblings come under attack, the more fiercely we are called to stand up for them.
This week’s Torah portion bears witness to the coming-together of estranged brothers in their shared mourning over a heartfelt loss.
Gen. 25:8 And Abraham breathed his last … and was gathered to his kin. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah; … there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. 11 After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi.
Isaac, the father of the Jews, and Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, had a tense relationship with one another – but they were united in common love for the father they shared. When Abraham dies, his two sons come together for the first time as adults, and amicably they carry out his final wishes. They part in peace, and Isaac settles near Beer-laha-roi, the very place where an angel had rescued Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. The connections between these patriarchs run deep, and they have held Jews and Muslims together, if tenuously, for centuries.
Being a Jew means standing beside others who are different from us.
In this week’s parashah, Abraham identifies himself as ger v’toshav, “a resident alien among you” (Gen. 23:4), and in most places where Jews lived from that point forward, we were, more or less, outsiders.
But today, though we remain a minority, we are not outsiders. Our community enjoys the blessings of tremendous privilege, and it our responsibility to use this privilege to help others who stand where we, not long ago, have stood.
Refugee Shabbat was moved to the spring so that this weekend could be reserved for remembering the tragedy of the shooting in Pittsburgh. But we are still taking a stand at this moment to announce tonight Oak Park Temple’s latest effort in support of refugees and refugee resettlement.
There are in the world today more than 82 million people who have been forced to flee their homes. This includes more than 20 million refugees, 48 million internally-displaced persons, and 4 million persons seeking asylum in a new country. To put those numbers in perspective, one in every 95 people on earth has fled their home as a result of conflict or persecution. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 20th populous, with more people than Canada and Argentina combined.
From 2008 to 2016, the United States resettled about 80,000 refugees each year. That means that people, mostly families, who were displaced from their country of origin were allowed to move to the US following extensive background and security checks.
Since 2017, however, we’ve resettled about 90,000 refugees total. For the past five years—which include four years of a hostile administration and one year of rebuilding infrastructure during a pandemic—the United States has been derelict on our duty to share our wealth and security with those who are most in need.
The tide is finally turning, and refugee resettlement is on the rise. This includes not only Afghanis fleeing the Taliban’s tyranny but also Syrians, Iraqis, Congolese, and others from around the world. Now is the time for us to step up and open our hands.
We’re going to start small—but in a big way. Oak Park Temple is working with the resettlement agency RefugeeOne to adopt (so to speak) a single resettled family. Early next year, RefugeeOne will reach out and ask us to give mentorship and support to a family that’s even more desperate than usual. To prepare for that effort, we’re currently putting together a core team of volunteers who will help us organize and direct the outflow of support we anticipate from the Oak Park Temple community.
There will be many ways for you to get involved. You’ll be asked to donate time or money, or to give new or like-new goods and furnishings to help the family settle in to a new home. Our first major effort will be around Hanukkah, and we may turn to you in the new year for unexpected needs as well.
We’ll rally around our family and welcome them—when they’re ready—to community events. And then, taking inspiration from the experiences we’ve share, we’ll push for refugee-friendly public policy on the state and national level, speaking with both knowledge and compassion in behalf of those whose voices are too often hard to hear.
We are just one congregation facing a huge problem; but in the lives of the family we’ll come to know and love, we can have a big impact. This impact will not only ripple outward into the world but will also resonate within each of our own hearts.
To help the refugee is our sacred duty. It’s also one way, in today’s day and age, we can continue to stand alongside others with integrity and love. May our commitment to these ancient principles bring healing to all it touches.
 http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html (as of June 2021)
 Sentiment taken, with figures recalculated, from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2015/6/558193896/worldwide-displacement-hits-all-time-high-war-persecution-increase.html. Population figures from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations).
 Figures drawn from UNHCR Resettlement Data Finder: https://rsq.unhcr.org/en/#uS3I.
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