In June each year we mark World Refugee Day. Lately, it seems that all our days are refugee days. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), we are living in a time with the greatest amount of displacement ever recorded. Newspaper headlines show the suffering of children being torn from their parents as they flee violence, seeking asylum in the United States. Refugees are a part of the global conversation and the human experience in almost every country on earth.
Here in Israel, I spend my days assisting the refugees who walked across deserts seeking safety from genocide, violence, war, and forced conscription. The global refugee crisis is a part of daily life, both for those who are struggling to find safety themselves, and for those, like my friends and neighbors, who are reaching out to help them. Growing up actively engaged in Jewish learning at synagogue and summer camp, I learned at an early age about the connections between the teachings in the Torah and our everyday actions to make the world a better place. Multiple times in the Torah we are commanded to care for the stranger among us. This message is powerful and real for me as I advocate for the asylum seekers who live just 20 minutes from my house. As we read in the Torah:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you, as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
One of the most compelling aspects of the work I am doing now is having the opportunity to meet inspiring Israelis who are welcoming the stranger every day and caring for their needs, loving them as themselves. One of these inspiring Israelis is my friend Gideon Ben-Ami, who feeds hungry people all over Tel Aviv through his organization, Pesia’s Kitchen, which is an official partnering agency to Leket, Israel’s Food Bank. Gideon was someone I had heard about as I volunteered with different organizations in South Tel Aviv during my first few years here. Fast forward a few years, and I now see him every week. What he does is magical and mensch-like and sometimes defies description. He runs a small organization that distributes food, both rescued and donated. He literally feeds the hungry, clothes the poor, and steps in to help whenever needed.
After an afternoon riding around with Gideon as he delivers food to a homeless shelter, a home for elderly Holocaust survivors, an organization that provides aid to refugees and asylum seekers, a halfway house for former prostitutes, a shelter for men starting new lives after substance abuse, one cannot help but be completely inspired and want to join in. Gideon has a saying that anyone who comes with him to deliver food quickly becomes addicted to doing good and cannot help but join him in his efforts. I tell people that once they see the suffering of human beings and realize that they have the ability to ease it, they cannot turn back, and they ask to join us.
While we strive to help refugees around the world find safety, we must also tend to their immediate humanitarian needs. In Tel Aviv, Gideon does just that with his devoted team of supporters. On World Refugee Day, let us each do our part to welcome the stranger among us by reducing suffering, providing sustenance, and restoring human dignity.