The Syrian Refugee Crisis: We’re Doing What Our Beliefs and Values Tell Us to Do
On Rosh HaShanah, I asked our congregation this question: “Who do we want to be in this new year?”
I then turned to Hillel’s famous three questions.
First: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
This question, in many ways, is our default position in the Jewish community. We stand up for each other because all too often, the world has not been a friendly place. Close to home, we have seen the effects of the continued rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, with Jewish families leaving France and starting over in Montreal.
But Hillel also asked: If I am only for myself, what am I?
If we care only about ourselves, if we are the sole subjects of our concern, then we diminish our own humanity.
Frank Nash, one of our members, spent six months on a Greek steamboat filled with fellow Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. When there was an exodus of Vietnamese people escaping on boats and looking for safe haven, it was he who organized our congregation to sponsor a Vietnamese family in 1979.
David Cohen, another longstanding member, had a grandfather who came to Canada at the turn of the last century, fleeing pogroms in Poland. He had to leave his sister behind. In 1938, as war brewed in Europe, he tried to bring her to Canada, but to no avail. Canada’s restrictive immigration policy meant that David’s great-aunt was killed in Poland. David grew up learning not to look the other way – and in turn, he taught that lesson to his children. They came to me asking if the congregation would consider sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees.
Then, a new member told me of how her young family was vacationing in Greece, close to where the refugees were landing on their journey into Europe. Movingly, she wrote:
One afternoon I was in the port with my two oldest daughters (ages 6 and 7) and I bought them each an ice cream sandwich. They weren’t paying much attention to a Syrian family, who like ours had three young kids, huddled together in the shade of a nearby building...When my girls opened their ice cream packets, they realized that each packet contained four little ice cream sandwiches. For a moment they were thrilled at their good fortune. But then one of the Syrian girls (she must have been about three), caught my oldest daughter’s eye, who then said to her sister, “Why don’t we just share one of the packages?” In the same breath, she handed her package over to the little girl who was watching. I was proud, of course, but I’m not sharing this story to illustrate how great my kids are – they’re just kids. I’m sharing this story because it illustrates so simply something that we all know from the time we are very little, and something that is so obvious when a real live human is standing in front of you; when you have more than enough of something and someone else has none, you share.
“Isn’t there something,” she asked me, “that we can do?”
And so, we come to Hillel’s third question: If not now, when?
On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the words “who by fire, who by water,” and about how I could not recite those words without seeing Alan Kurdi, drowned in the Aegean Sea. I could not say them and know that we could have helped, but did nothing. The only relevant religious question to me was what our beliefs and values tell us to do. And so, on the initiative of our congregants and with the support of our lay leaders, I announced our intention to sponsor at least one family of Syrian refugees.
More than $25,000 came in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; by the end of the fall, we had raised almost $70,000, enough to sponsor three families. Donations ranged from $18 to $10,000, from Jews and non-Jews, members of our community and far beyond. For the first time, I understood the passage in the Torah in which Moses says the people have given more than enough.
So with the secular New Year just behind us, where are we? We have been able to move forward, not only thanks to an outpouring of generosity, but also because of the willingness of congregants to volunteer. We have already identified two families. I feel privileged to be in the Canadian context, where religious communities are able to sponsor families and there is governmental will to respond. The timeline is uncertain, but we hope the first family will arrive in a matter of months.
We know that our efforts are simply a drop in the bucket of the greater need. We know that some in our community are nervous about the refugees. But we also know that who we are and who we want to be require us to act. And if not now, when?