On Refugees, Jews Caught Between Care And Fear


For the past two years, the organized Jewish community has raised more than $500,000 for humanitarian groups in Jordan helping Syrian refugees there. Two weeks ago, it started helping those descending on Europe.

But following President Barack Obama’s action last week authorizing the resettlement of at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. over the next year (on top of the 1,500 Syrian refugees already resettled here), several Jewish leaders are urging caution.

The warning comes even as some congregations here are seeking to sponsor Syrian refugees arriving in the U.S.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is one of about 40 national Jewish organizations that belong to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief that has raised money for Syrian refugees. The group did so out of a “moral” imperative to respond to the humanitarian crisis, said Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

But he cautioned that “we’re talking about a people who come from a country in chaos.”

But Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, stressed that the Syrian refugees are fleeing a war zone and not seeking refuge for political reasons. She said 80 percent of the refugees are women and children and that they should be admitted first because “they are the most vulnerable.”

And she said there are 15,000 doctors who fled Syria whose talents “could be used in underserved communities in the U.S.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said “experts have said that as many as 5 percent of Syrian Muslims are involved with ISIS, and that a disproportionate number of Syrian Muslims may have terrorist inclinations. There must be a full vetting process because America should not allow anyone into this country with terrorist sympathies or who has a membership in any anti-American groups.”

But HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield said in a conference call with journalists that the very stringent process of applying for resettlement to the U.S. eliminates security threats.

“The United States admits a million legal immigrants a year,” said Nezer. “Most are students, or come on tourist visas. Anyone who wishes us harm would not do it through the resettlement process.”

The U.S. takes in about 70,000 refugees every year from all over the world, but the process of admitting a refugee from the Middle East takes up to two years.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, agreed that while the Jewish community has a “human responsibility to help them,” he suggested more pressure be put on Muslim countries to take in refugees.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, agreed. “The heart tells you that you have to help, but the head tells you to be careful and not assist those who want to hurt you,” he said. “There are [Syrian] people who are certainly against the U.S., and if the U.S. admits those who are against us, it creates a problem.”

The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, the umbrella organization coordinated by the American Joint Distribution Committee that has raised $500,000 in two years to support aid efforts in Jordan, has raised another $125,000 in response to the situation in Europe. And the JDC is distributing basic supplies to refugees in Budapest train stations and is assessing conditions in refugee camps, said spokesman Michael Geller.

HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is also using this moment of heightened awareness to mount a domestic advocacy effort, seeking to convince Obama to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees.

“We see this as an opportunity both to galvanize a response to the Syrian refugee crisis but also to create a context,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, a vice-president at HIAS, which was founded in 1881 to help Jews immigrating from Russia and Eastern Europe. “This didn’t just happen. This has been happening for years, and it’s happening across the globe, but it’s too much for the human spirit to take in sometimes.”

In synagogues across the U.S. this week, many rabbis spoke of the refugee crisis in their High Holy Day sermons, Rabbi Wernick noted.

Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, spiritual leader of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I., had long planned to speak about immigration in his Sept. 5 sermon to coincide with the chanting of parsha Ki Tavo. It contains the famous sentence, “My father was a wandering Aramaen,” which is recited each year at the seder table.

He said he chose that topic to protest Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s generalizations about Mexican immigrants. But when Sept. 5 arrived, the world had just seen the photos of a 2-year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to escape his country’s civil war. So he broadened his sermon to address that, too.

“We should understand the wanderer, and know what it means to be fleeing from oppression and seeking liberty,” Rabbi Zeplowitz said.

He said his congregation has responded to the Syrian exodus by earmarking its quarterly tzedakah, or charity, for HIAS. And he said congregants are also trying to figure out how to help an individual Syrian refugee or family directly.

Like the Community Synagogue, other congregations have called HIAS asking how they can sponsor a refugee family; 3,500 have signed HIAS’ petition calling for the United States to do more about the Syrian refugee crisis and civil war, and rabbis have called wanting to address the subject from the bima.

Of the about 22 million Syrians before the civil war, about 4 million have fled, 12 million are internally displaced and 250,000 have died. Syrians fled initially to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but are now descending on Europe after realizing they can’t go home and finding intolerable the living conditions in refugee camps, according to HIAS staffer Britanny Vanderhoof.

On the home front, HIAS is trying to activate the grassroots by getting people to sign its petition to increase the number of refugees here and to create a bipartisan coalition to make that possible.

“This has to be something we do as a country,” said Melanie Nezer, a HIAS vice president.

Creating such a movement will be very difficult, said David Leblang, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Obama might be unwilling to raise the Syrian quota or give their situation a higher profile in any way because of his own record on the war there, which includes embarrassing moments like his reversal of his stated commitment to act should the government use chemical weapons on Syrian citizens.

“For Obama to say we need to bring in 100,000 refugees, that would be an explicit acknowledgement of a major foreign policy fiasco,” Leblang said.

As for recruiting Republican allies to the congressional Democrats who have already said they want the U.S. to do more for Syrians, it will be hard to find enough centrist Republicans to spend their political capital on this issue when anti-Muslim sentiment is so strong in many areas of the country.

Bennett, whose multifaith organization is a project of the Tannenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, said the process could be speeded up if the U.S. hired more screeners and if the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which refers refugees for screening, were better financed.

Asked about anti-Semitism among the refugees, Bennett said: “As Syrians encounter Jews and Israelis who are there to help them, we see a change in attitude — we see this with the Israeli NGOs operating throughout the region. We are working with Syrian NGOs in this country and the head of one of them said to me, ‘Thank God for Israel’ and another said, ‘The Jews are our greatest ally.’”

“I see this as a huge opportunity to build bridges between Jews and Syrians, between Israelis and Syrians and by extension throughout the Middle East,” Bennett added. “We believe we are helping to sow the seeds for future stability in the region.”

But as Rabbi Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis said, “Compassion with caution is well advised.”

Web director Helen Chernikoff contributed to this story.