HIAS' Community Engagement Sends Strong Message

By Sharon Samber, HIAS.org

HIAS' Community Engagement Sends Strong Message

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and Smita Dazzo, HIAS Senior Director for Legal and Asylum (L) with staff of then-Senator Kamala Harris and Rabbi Devorah Marcus, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in San Diego (far R) on July 18, 2019. HIAS and clergy leaders visited Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders and aides to deliver a clergy letter and explain the importance of maintaining the asylum program.

(Eric Kruszewski for HIAS)

After four years of attacks on refugee resettlement and the asylum system, there is a sense of renewed hope as the Biden administration has promised a major shift in immigration policies. But HIAS’ community engagement team knows the start of a new presidency doesn't mean refugee advocates can take a break.

“We have to make things count now with action and determination,” said Rebecca Kirzner, HIAS’ senior director of grassroots campaigns. “We are working from a place of possibility. If enough of us speak up with enough strength, heart, and strategy, we can make sure our newly elected officials act with urgency to secure the rights and dignity of refugees.”  

HIAS is focusing on ensuring the new Congress and administration hear about the Jewish community’s strong support for refugees. In the past few years, more than 2000 rabbis and 600 synagogues have participated in campaigns, public actions, advocacy initiatives, and educational programming organized by HIAS. 

Much of that engagement was fueled by the Trump administration’s constant assault on refugees and asylum seekers, which often drew comparisons to similar moments in Jewish history when refugees were turned away and denied safety. Now that a number of Trump-era policies are being reversed by the new administration, HIAS feels it can organize from a more positive space and expect advocacy to result in tangible changes in policy.

“The last four years have been rough, but we are operating now from a place of grounded optimism,” said Merrill Zack, HIAS' vice president of community engagement. “We have an opportunity to put our values into action when change is truly possible, and we have real commitments from the new administration to rebuild the refugee and asylum programs.” 

HIAS has already collected more than 1,200 signatures from Jewish clergy leaders on a letter asking the Biden administration to move quickly to welcome all those seeking safety in the United States. Such clergy letters are major demonstrations of the nationwide Jewish support for welcoming the stranger.

HIAS is greeting the new 117th Congress with a Welcome Card campaign, asking new members especially to stand for the rights, dignity, and safety of refugees and asylum seekers. Leaders within congregations and community groups collected signatures for the online cards, which are sent to their members of Congress. In their messages to their representatives and senators, constituents ask that they call on the administration to reverse harmful policies, programs, and executive orders that have hurt refugees and asylum seekers in the last four years and use their congressional oversight role to highlight the importance of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Last but not least, Refugee Shabbat will take place on March 5-6. This is HIAS’ single largest community-outreach program, involving hundreds of participants from around the world. It is a moment for congregations, organizations, and individuals to dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers. This year, some congregations are planning programs such as educational panels with refugee and asylum-seeker speakers and policy experts; Zoom meetings with their elected representatives; community art projects to create large-scale tallitot (prayer shawls) on the theme of welcome; and more. Many communities are also including relevant themes in their Shabbat services through creative readings, liturgical music composed by refugees, and sermons, or divrei Torah. 

“Each year, it is so powerful to see the creative and new ways that communities across the United States and around the world lift up the work that they have done on issues around forced displacement throughout the year,” said Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, HIAS’ rabbi-in-residence and project manager for Refugee Shabbat. “Their action makes it clear that the Jewish community speaks with a clear voice to say that we stand for welcome for refugees and asylum seekers everywhere.”

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