One of the most oft repeated commandments in the Torah is the injunction to “love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” This command is an integral part of our identity as Jews. Today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day, and as an American Jew, I am reminded of our own refugee history on this continent.
In 1654, a small band of Dutch Jews fled the Portuguese reconquest of Brazil and found refuge and religious liberty in the colony of New Amsterdam. Over several centuries, they were joined by their brethren from around the world who were escaping religious persecution and ethnic violence, and seeking safety and political freedom. These Jewish refugees believed that the United States was “Di Goldene Medina” — the Golden Country. Millions of refugees — Jews and others — arrived on America’s shores, until a fearful nation closed its doors to them. Those who remained behind would soon face Nazi terror, culminating in the Holocaust and the near annihilation of Jewish life in Europe.
Jews who settled in the United States found a land both welcoming and occasionally unfriendly. They fought tirelessly against discrimination and intolerance. They built houses and gardens, raised families and launched businesses. In doing so, they forged a unique and strong synthesis of their Jewish heritage and commitment to their adopted home.
Inspired by their own experiences of intolerance and oppression in their home countries and by the spiritual vocation of tikkun olam — the charge to repair the world — we have stood at the forefront of the struggles for human freedom, equality and dignity in the United States. Rabbis and cantors marched arm in arm with their fellow Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and young activists joined the Freedom Summer. Jewish Americans — ever mindful of historical Jewish experiences of persecution and of being strangers in a new land — have endeavored to keep America a haven for the world’s most vulnerable and a bastion of hope. They have tirelessly worked to help forge a more perfect union.
Today I think of the American Jewish organizations who dedicate themselves to aiding and welcoming refugees, protecting civil rights, and combating prejudice. I think of HIAS — originally known as the Hebrew Aid Immigrant Society — whose motto is “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” As the oldest resettlement organization in the world, HIAS is also the only Jewish organization that works with the U.S. government to resettle refugees in the United States. I think of how the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and many other American Jewish organizations joined together in 2013 to form the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, which has since provided more than $500,000 in grants to humanitarian groups in Jordan.
Perhaps most importantly, I also think of the countless initiatives of Jewish individuals, families, and congregations. This past April, I learned that dozens of volunteers from Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York bought groceries, donated household supplies, and helped furnish apartments for newly arrived families from Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban. When congregants at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia recently hosted a dinner for Syrian families to welcome them to the United States, it was a powerful testimony of how hospitality (and food!) can transcend religious, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
Since 1975, Americans have welcomed more than 3.2 million refugees from all over the world. And the program is growing. The United States refugee resettlement program works because it is driven by local communities. Federal money comes to a local community to fund services for newly arrived refugees, but it is local community organizations, religious communities, and volunteers who drive the process — by meeting refugees at the airport, helping them learn how to get around, learn English, get jobs, and become part of their new communities.
I can’t help but think of my own grandparents who, in the early 20th century, left the Russian Empire from Vilnius (today in Lithuania) and two small shtetls, Antopaĺ and Haradziec (today in Belarus), to come to the United States in search of a better life for their family. They arrived with nothing, but were supported by the kindness and generosity of the Americans who came to “Di Goldene Medina” before them. Today’s refugees are also searching for a better life for their families — to live in dignity, without fear of violence and persecution, to have food and shelter, to work, and to send their kids to school. I see in their faces the faces of my ancestors, and am called to action.
As Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I am acutely and painfully aware of the importance of safety and security for minority groups and the importance of feeling welcomed and wanted. On World Refugee Day, may the Jewish mitzvah to “Love the stranger” become a universal call to help ensure today’s refugees will be tomorrow’s neighbors and friends.
Ira Forman serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State.