Welcoming a Refugee Family

Throughout the Torah, the Israelites are reminded “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9)  Thirty-six times in the Torah and throughout our rituals, we are reminded of our ancestors’ hardships in Egypt.  These reminders are prompts for us to extend kindness and welcome others in need.

In close partnership with our friends at Bethesda United Methodist Church and Saint Mark Presbyterian Church, we are excited to be able to fulfill this special mitzvah.  In two weeks, we will welcome a refugee family into our communities.

These three houses of worship have come together to sponsor a refugee family with the guidance of Lutheran Social Services which is the designated resettlement organization locally.  With support from HIAS and others, we have been waiting for over a year for this moment.

While I am not allowed to share details of the family over social media until their arrival, I can share that this family has been living in a refugee camp for a decade waiting for the chance to come to America.  In all that time, their country of origin was too dangerous to return to and thus remained refugees with the hope of arriving in a safer land.  Their time has finally come.

Over the past year, we have been preparing.  Robust committees have been formed to assist with transportation, employment, finance, housing, and food and clothing needs.  These committees are made up of members of all three congregations.  The chairs of the Refugee Committee are Sharon Fine and Michael Kieval.  They have been supported by Beth El Board member Sheryl Miller, VP for Tikkun Olam.  These committees have put in countless hours planning and preparing.

There are ways for you to help too.  This Sunday, Sept. 2, we will be collecting school supplies for this family at the Back-to-Shul BBQ. In addition, we will hold a clothing drive specifically for the family on Mitzvah Day on October 28. In the coming months, look for announcements about other ways to help support this family.

For so many reasons, this is an exciting moment for our community.  Doing it in partnership with the churches only adds to the sacred work underway.  In our morning blessings, we recite:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, זוֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe who straightens the bent.

Through our combined efforts, we will assist this family to leave the circumstances they are fleeing and stand upright in the safety and blessings of America.

As Emma Lazarus’ famous poem ‘The New Colossus’ claims on the Statue of Liberty:

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!

Together, we will embrace this challenge and this family.  I invite you to get involved.

Posted by Rabbi Greg Harris


Laurence Jarvik

Dear Rabbi Harris, Will you assure this Beth El congregant that this “refugee” family is not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel? The Presbyterian Church is officially anti-Israel and many Arab “refugees” (who may or may not really be refugees) are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Has any opinion survey of family members been done prior to sponsorship? Sad to say, HIAS, which saved my mother’s family from Hitler, sadly is today to all intents and purposes a partisan anti-Trump and therefore unreliable organization in my personal opinion. So, I ask that you take personal responsibility to insure your congregation that you know for a fact that these “refugees” pose no threat of any kind to America, American Jewry, or Israel. If you cannot in good conscience give that promise, I beg that you reconsider your sponsorship of this initiative. You don’t want to have enabled the next San Bernadino or Orlando massacre…and neither do I. Thank you for your consideration, and L’Shanah Tovah!

I certainly welcome having coffee together to discuss this more in person. I can give you my personal assurance that this family went through the extensive vetting process the US government and the Trump Adminstration found adequate to allow them entry.

For the specific profile of the family, we have not been allowed to share those details yet so I can not comment on their country of origin – Arab or otherwise.

If we meet, I would be interested if your reaction changes depending on where the family comes from.

Shavuah Tov

Walter Schimmerling

If you look at the “welcome” graphic that accompanies Rabbi Harris’ essay, you will notice that a Hebrew baruch haba’a is absent, but that “welcome” is rendered in the languages of many of the countries that have not taken in any refugees or, even, have contributed to their plight.
It is hard to avoid the idea that here, as in many other pious international fora, Israel is excluded, contributing to the suspicion that we are being used to further an agenda we probably don’t understand very well.
On the other hand, there are several million refugees needing help these days and the probability that any one of them poses a danger should be as negligible as the impact we are making on solving the refugee problem.
Of course, the point of this exercise is not to solve the refugee problem, but to enable us to feel good. Is that so bad? And, by helping one family, as the saying goes, we may be saving the world
But let’s just make sure that our neighbors in the Methodist church (which openly supports a boycott of Israel) and Presbyterian church (whose church just barely avoided passing a similar resolution) give adequate credit to Beth El for this effort.

Rabbi Greg Harris

The point of this effort is to assist a family in need. We have many initiatives to aid individuals and families throughout Montgomery County so this is an extension of work we are already engaged in. You are correct about the Methodists and Presbyterians generally but these specific communities are different. I have been to Israel and the West Bank with Rev Howard. He is a passionate and thoughtful lover of Israel. Rev Cannon and I have worked closely together over years. I invite you to get to know these community partners before you paint them with a broad brush stroke.

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