Welcoming Immigrants, From Tennessee To Germany


When David Lubell was just out of college, he went to Ecuador for a year to teach English. It’s a year that determined his life’s work.

“I lived with a family that welcomed me with all their heart,” he said. “I came back to the United States wanting to return the favor … to dedicate my life to making others feel that welcome.”

Lubell spoke to The Jewish Week on Monday from New York, where he had come from his home in Atlanta to be honored as the most recent recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize. The prize, created by the children of the businessman-philanthropist, is presented each year to someone doing humanitarian work informed by Jewish values with a global impact. Lubell, 42, won the prize for his efforts to encourage people to make immigrants in their communities feel more welcome.

When Lubell returned to the States in 1999, he landed a job in Memphis as a community organizer for the Latino community, which had increased 400 percent in a decade. Within a few years he helped found Welcoming Tennessee, which works on reducing fears and misconceptions about immigrants by American-born residents by addressing and assuaging fears about newcomers.

“We started telling the stories of immigrants who are contributing, who share the values of the local population, because we didn’t see any other way forward,” Lubell said, especially when the targeting of immigrants became more severe after 9/11.

In 2009, Lubell expanded the model and formed Welcoming America, which now operates in more than 190 communities across the U.S. It is now in four other countries, including Germany, where he will soon move with his family to focus on helping in the major effort there to settle more than a million refugee newcomers.

“Germany has been so much more helpful to immigrants than America,” he explained at the Prize program Monday evening at the New York Historical Society. “I want to help build bridges within the global immigrant community. We need to support and learn from each other.” He described Germany as “the world’s moral leader” in welcoming refugees, and noted that historical irony – more than seven decades after the Holocaust — as well as the example of the ethical progress societies can achieve.

“They understand their history and they want to really, intentionally chart a different course,” he said. “And so if Germans as a people want to do that, I want to help.”

Ellen Bronfman Hauptman, who established the Prize in 2004 with her brother, Stephen Bronfman, to honor their father told The Jewish Week that when she heard about Lubell’s work, she understood the purpose right away, based on her own recent experience of moving to Los Angeles and being greeted warmly by neighbors.

“People should just, generally speaking, be empathetic, and kind and welcoming and want their economies to thrive and want to be inclusive. And I think what David is trying to build is just that — inclusive societies.”