Do Not Remain Indifferent – Syrian Refugee Crisis

A few weeks ago, I took my niece Sydney to New York City for her ninth birthday. Most 9-year olds might ask to spend the day at The American Girl Doll store, or shopping for the school year. But Sydney had an unusual request: she wanted to visit Ellis Island.

She learned about Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and immigration last year in school and she thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to see those places for herself and learn even more about the American immigrant experience.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry ride to Ellis Island (photo by Sydney Marks).It was a beautiful – but very hot August day. As we took the ferry from Battery Park to Ellis Island, we sailed right by the Statue of Liberty. Sydney was in awe of its sheer size. She had not imagined that Lady Liberty would be that big. She realized that it was this much “larger than life” magnificent monument that greeted new immigrants and refugees and welcomed them to their new home in America. It was the outstretched arm with the beacon of light that was one of the first sites people saw, before their ship even docked at Ellis Island. Sydney took a beautiful photo with my cell phone.

We spoke about the poem inscribed on the Statue’s base, by the Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, in which the Statue of Liberty is depicted as the “Mother of Exiles:”

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Those words stayed with us as we disembarked at Ellis Island and proceeded with the self-guided youth audio tour. Sydney took in the entire experience – every room we entered, every exhibit we encountered, every photo we saw. The exhibits illustrating the difficulties faced by children struck a deep chord within her. At nine, Sydney’s life has been fairly carefree. She could not imagine living a life filled with harshness, violence and suffering. We were all very moved by a photograph of a seder that took place at Ellis Island, because at the time the photo was taken, this Jewish refugee group was still in quarantine and had not yet received permission to leave the Island at the time that Pesach occurred.

The trip left a tremendous impact on all of us. And as we sailed back on the ferry to Battery Park, we reflected on what we read, saw and heard.

Our trip to Ellis Island resonated deeply as we’ve been reading the news these past few weeks about the refugee crisis in Eritrea and Syria.

Shortly after my visit to Ellis Island and my discussion with Sydney about the Statue of Liberty, the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem came rushing back to me 10 days ago, as news of three-year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. We have all heard the news about Aylan who was a toddler and was part of a group of 23 Syrian refugees that was trying to reach the Greek island of Kos by two boats. Tragically, his vessel capsized. His 5-year old brother and mother also drowned.

“Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

Our hearts break when we actually see “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” washing up on the shore: three-year old boys. Boys who should be playing with trucks, riding their scooters, kicking a ball. And who is holding up a welcoming lamp to welcome these refugees in? We know that very few countries want to take them.

The Syrian Refugee crisis is not new. We’re well aware that the conflict in Syria began in 2011 when peaceful anti-government protests arose against President Assad’s regime. The protests, and the Assad government’s reaction to them became increasingly violent. Two-and-a-half years into the conflict, this crisis has become one of the worst humanitarian catastrophe’s in decades. Over 6 million people have been directly impacted by the fighting. More than 100,000 people have died. Over 2 million Syrians have been forced to take refuge in neighboring countries and many more still need a place to go. More than 4 million people have been made homeless within Syria. Many have lost all of their life savings and possessions. There are 60 million people in the world who have been displaced by conflict or persecution, comprising a global refugee population larger than at any time since World War II. Eleven million are Syrians who have fled their homes because of war: 7 million are displaced within Syria and over 4 million are refugees.

Over 90% of Syrian refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have been very good host countries, but they simply do not have the funding to provide for such an overwhelming number of people. This has resulted in a lack of job opportunities and limited access to medical care and education. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has only received 37% of the funding it requested to meet the needs in these areas. The World Food Programme had to cut food assistance to one third of its recipients due to a lack of funding. (Information from HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

Given the desperate situation of many of the refugees currently hosted in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, many have been forced to flee for a second time – to Europe. Many people have risked their lives in extremely perilous journeys, often through exploitative smuggling networks – across the Mediterranean and into Greece or Italy. Over 2,500 people have died this summer on such a journey. Those who survive then continue across Europe toward countries that will welcome them, most notably, Germany and Sweden. Sadly, some countries, such as Hungary, have tightened their borders to keep refugees from entering.

The United States has a proud history of offering refuge to those in need of safety and protection. In recent years, the United States has consistently committed to resettling a total of 70,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from around the world, and HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – is one of the resettlement agencies working to integrate refugees into communities around the country. Due to long delays, excessive bureaucracy and extensive security checks, it can take years for an individual refugee to complete the entire process and come to the United States. Consequently, to date, the U.S. has only resettled 1,500 Syrian refugees.

While the United States has provided humanitarian aid to the region and has committed to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, this is not a time for “business as usual.”

Syria is far removed from our lives here in the United States. Many of us willingly contribute funds to refugee causes..but Syria is so far away. They do not have relations with Israel. We might be a little xenophobic (fear of the foreigner…ironically, one of the sins, for which we ask forgiveness during these Days of Awe). We might forget about the human element involved.

What should our response be? We need to look at the humanitarian issue here – and not the political issue involving Syria as a country. Millions of people are starving, homeless, dying and are being subjected to violence, pain and brutality– many of them women and children. We cannot remain silent, turn a blind eye nor remain indifferent.

And then just last Sunday, the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine showed a stark photo of a small boat – one of two carrying 733 desperate people trying to flee from their dire situation in Eritrea as they were aiming to find refuge in Italy. The photo was part of a story that highlighted the plight of the Eritrean refugees. These people too have been caught up in a deadly drama that has been unfolding in the Mediterranean over the past year. Almost 250,000 people have tried to make this journey so far this summer to escape the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa, the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Jews, we know all too what it means to be a refugee, unwelcome in our own land. Our Jewish history is fraught with exile and wandering, going all the way back to the Torah when we had to go to Egypt because of famine in the land of Israel.

We fully understand what it means to be a “stranger in a strange land” and to rely on the hospitality and welcoming of others to provide us with food, clothing and shelter – life’s basic necessities. We also have personal experience with welcoming and hospitality: we know first-hand that there are countries where the doors would be open, and countries where the gates would be closed: as refugees, sometimes one must wander for a long time before you find safety and security, food to eat, a bed in which to sleep and a place to call “home.”

Is this current global refugee crisis a Jewish issue? What does our Jewish tradition teach us about refugees and why must we speak about it on Rosh Hashanah?

We know that the story of the Jews is a story of wandering, from Abraham leaving his home in Ur, to the Israelites going down to Egypt. We read in the Haggadah at Pesach: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt and stayed there.” From our suffering in Egypt, God tells us: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). Since we had experience as refugees living in a country that was not our own, we should have wisdom, compassion and understanding for those who are undergoing a similar circumstance.

After the Exodus from Egypt and we returned to Israel, our time at home was not permanent. We were exiled to Babylonia in the year 586 BCE by King Nebuchaddnezzar and became refugees once again. We flourished in Babylonia and the Talmud was written during that time. But it was still not home. One of the Psalms crys out: “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept for you Zion.” And the rabbis of the Talmudic period further expand on the Jewish notion of how we are to behave: We are told in the Talmud, “once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.” Thus, the rabbis are telling us we must not only be compassionate, but we are now compelled to act – to care for the refugee, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to make peace when there is strife.” We must not remain indifferent.

The story of our people’s ongoing exiles continues throughout history: during the Roman times, the Byzantine Empire, the Spanish Inquisition. Within every century and every region, we Jews have always had to be on the move. But we were not alone. Many other peoples were also roaming about – seeking safety, security and shelter, looking for a peaceful place to call “home.”

In our time, of course, it was the Holocaust of Nazi Germany that resonates deeply for us as Jews. When the world closed its eyes and ears to Jewish refugees trying to flee Europe, or looking for a safe place, we must not forget that the United States and Canada were not the most welcoming.

During World War II, for example, although thousands of Jews were admitted to the United States from 1938-1941, the US did not pursue and organized and specific policy for Jewish victims of Nazi Germany for fear that refugees could be caught as working as secret agents for Germany. It was not until 1944 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board and established a policy that allowed Jewish refugees to enter the US and to be saved from the horrors and ravages of Europe.

Canada had an even worse track record. Canada’s head of immigration during World War II was so anti-semitic that Canada had a policy against bringing any Jewish refugees into Canada from 1933-1948. When someone asked a civil servant how many Jews Canada would allow into the country if the policy were to change, the response was: “None is too many.”

Israel’s founding in 1948 as our Jewish homeland, the place where each and every Jew can find a safe and secure place is critical to the survival of the Jewish people. But during WWII, prior to the founding of the Jewish state, boatloads of Jewish refugees were turned away from Palestine and sent back to ….perhaps death, or dp camps.

And now the refugees from Syria and Eritrea are facing a similar fate.

Why am I speaking about the refugee crisis on Rosh Hashanah morning – Our Jewish New Year?

One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is “Yom Ha-Din” – Day of Judgment. Rosh Hashanah is not simply a time of reflection, prayer and introspection. It is a time for action. It is the time for us to worry about the state of our own soul’s and the fate of our neighbor’s body. If we don’t head the Talmud’s call to action, to care for the refugee, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to make peace when there is strife – we will be judged by God on High.

Next week on Yom Kippur, we recite a communal confession: a list of things for which we as a community have sinned: “Al chet she-chatanu l’fanecha…” One of the sins on our list is: For the sin we have committed against you for remaining indifferent: indifferent to the injustices that are taking place in our world.” As Jews, we have a moral obligation to speak out against injustice and wrong- doing. Great modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “God demands justice and compassion of us. He condemns murder and killing of innocent people above all. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible if they do not speak up and act out against inaction.”

Heschel was a man of principle and action. He spoke out against Vietnam. He marched with Martin Luther King against segregation and racism.

We are all acutely aware of what is taking place in Syria and Eritrea. We know that people are suffering horribly. I feel strongly that it would be a mistake to remain silent, a mistake to do nothing: “Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha.”

My hope is that each one of us today will go home and discuss the issues, recognize that we have a moral imperative as Jews to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves and to spur some type of action to rectify the situation. It is my hope that our Social Action Committee will join with the greater Jewish community to put together a response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time since WWII. We cannot stand idly by. Lo tachmod al dam re’echa. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. We cannot remain indifferent.

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, Humanitarian, Professor, recently said, “Indifference creates evil. My humanity derives from my efforts with others. I have no doubt that evil can be fought and that indifference is no option. I have no doubt that the life of one person weighs more than all of them.”

So what does it mean for us to “not remain indifferent?”

We read this morning in our machzor the very dramatic “U’n’taneh Tokef” prayer: “Who Shall Live and who shall die, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by strangling and who by stoning, who by fire and who by water…”

At first glance this seems like an extremely fatalistic prayer. It’s as if God has predetermined everything that will happen in the world. But the “chatimah” – the ending line – of the prayer states: u’t’shuvah, u’t’filah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’g’zeirah: But Repepentance, Prayer and Charity temper Judgment’s severe decree.

What does this mean?

T’shuvah – does not mean “repentance” in the English meaning of the word. Literally, it means a “turning around” of our ways. It means doing something different and behaving differently. For us, concerning this refugee crisis, it would mean not just shaking our heads in sympathy as we read the horrifying news, but being spurred to take action.

T’filah – prayer. We read in one of our prayers on Friday night: pray as if everything depended on God, but act as if everything depends on you. We use prayer as a way to connect with God to give us strength and to give our lives meaning. God can help give us the courage to do those difficult tasks and cope with painful experiences that might be unbearable otherwise. Prayer can help direct our energy toward helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Tzedakah – many people translate tzedakah as charity – but it comes from the word “tzedek” – which means “justice.” Doing tzedakah does not mean doing acts of charity, rather it means engaging in actions of justice, doing all that we can to insure that all human beings can live in a safe, peaceful and healthy world.

I am proud to be Jewish at this time of crisis and difficulty in our world. Because the Jewish world has responded loudly and strongly to this time of great need. HIAS, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, World Jewish Relief, Union for Reform Judaism, The Central Conference of American Reform Rabbis and so many other organizations have all created meaningful and important responses.

HIAS has been advocating with the US Senate and Congress for Civil Rights and Human Rights on the issue of Syrian Refugees.

Right before Rosh Hashanah, I and a coalition of many other rabbis joined together to put together resources for these Yamim Nora’im. The Union for Reform Judaism, HIAS and many other Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations have also joined together to form a Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. We will be handing out a one-page resource after services when we greet you to wish you a Shana Tova.

There is much work to do. There are many ways that each and every one of us can help.

ADVOCATE. This High Holiday season, ask President Obama and Congress to take bold action on the Syrian refugee crisis.

VOLUNTEER. This High Holiday season, commit to welcoming refugees into our community and volunteer to bring aid to refugees across the world.

LEARN. This High Holiday season, dedicate yourself to learning more about the global refugee crisis in general and the Syrian refugee crisis in particular.

The wordless cry of the shofar stirs our souls. Its blasts pierce through our complacency and wake us up to the urgency of this hour.

I conclude with the following prayer (note: this prayer was written and sent out by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) which will be shared in hundreds of congregations across North America: The Torah demands of us to love the stranger. Today, then, we sound the shofar not only for ourselves, but also for those most in need of our attention and our protection. We sound the shofar for the 60 million displaced people around the world, including the 19 million refugees worldwide in search of a place to call home and the 4 million Syrian refugees seeking safety and freedom.

Tekiah. For the long and winding road out of Egypt, a road seemingly without end, that our ancestors walked thousands of years ago.

Tekiah. For the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who, in our day, have embarked upon arduous journeys, footstep by footstep, from Syria to Turkey, from Hungary to Germany.

Shevarim. For the desperate cries of our ancestors when they begged God for food to eat and water to drink, their spirits broken by the harsh wilderness.

Shevarim. For the cries of Abdullah, father of Aylan Kurdi, who joins broken-hearted parents throughout the

world whose children have not survived the journey to safety.

Teruah. For the Jews of Spain and Yemen, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Union who trembled with fear even as they harnessed incredible strength to leave their homes in search of safety.

Teruah. For all those who tremble in the cold of night, asleep in fields and deserts and railway stations across the globe, threatened by those who wish to thwart their efforts to seek asylum.

Tekiah gedolah. The greatest tekiah of all – ha’tekiah ha’gedolah be’yoter – is when we rise up from our prayers and put words to this wordless cry. Let us use our voices to call out on behalf of those who are most vulnerable.

This Rosh Hashanah, we commit ourselves to welcoming the refugees in our community with warm embrace, helping to meet their basic needs and to ensure that they are able to rebuild their lives with dignity.

This Rosh Hashanah, we dedicate ourselves to learning more about the global refugee crisis so that we are better equipped to create a world in which everyone has a safe place to call home.

Tekiah. We call out with a steady and steadfast commitment to righteousness.

Shevarim. We call out, our link in the chain of history unbroken.

Teruah. We call out with voices unafraid.

Tekiah Gedolah – We call out with voices loud and strong so that all can hear, all can see that WE are: that symbolic beacon of light brightening the shores, so that we will no longer have to witness the “wretched masses teeming on the shore” and so that all humankind has the opportunity to live in safety and freedom.

Ani V’atah, n’shaneh et ha’olam: together, you and I can change the world.

(Song: Ani V’atah N’Shaneh et Ha’Olam…)