Refugee Shabbat 2021 an Unqualified Success

By Sharon Samber,


Lea Kalisch and Rabbi Tobias Divack Moss perform the song "You Were Strangers" during the havdalah service hosted by HIAS as part of Refugee Shabbat.

Say what you will about 2021 — too much like 2020, pandemic still here, winter was hard — Refugee Shabbat 2021 was an unqualified success.

With more than 300 congregations participating, and people from all over the world Zooming in for programs and events, the weekend gave renewed focus to the global refugee crisis, and how groups and individuals are helping refugees and asylum seekers find their way to safety and opportunity.

“At a time when so many of us have hit a “pandemic wall,” it is so deeply moving to see thousands of people showing up for refugees and asylum seekers, even if the way we see each other is  on screens,” said Merrill Zack, HIAS’ vice president for community engagement. “This commitment to deepening our collective knowledge, to joining together in community to take action to protect refugee rights, is powerful to behold."

Over the Refugee Shabbat weekend HIAS hosted a musical havdalah, (the service for concluding Shabbat), which wove together refugee stories with the symbols of havdalah and a performance of the hit song ‘You Were Strangers” from the musical REVIVAL. On Sunday, an educational program about the Jewish movement for refugees from a global perspective, featured HIAS staff from around the world and HIAS’ partner JIAS Toronto

Refugee Shabbat is an international affair. The European Union for Progressive Judaism and HIAS Europe organized a webinar featuring a number of Jewish activists and experts from around Europe, providing a menu of engagement opportunities for interested Jewish communities. There was a discussion about how individual Jewish groups can approach the issue of refugees and asylum seekers locally in their respective communities, possibly as part of their wider social justice work. Speakers included experts and activists in Vienna, Italy, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

Many synagogues participated in ways that personalized their experiences. The Austin Jewish Community, in partnership with HIAS and Refugee Services of Texas, hosted a dinner at which participants learned about refugee and asylum updates and shared food and music with two immigrant families living in Austin. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York has been helping to run an immigration clinic for almost two years; their featured speakers for Refugee Shabbat services were people who won their asylum cases with the help of the clinic.

Refugee Shabbat always extends beyond the actual Shabbat and even the weekend, and this year was no different. On March 13 Beth El Synagogue in Omaha will be hosting a post-havdalah film screening and discussion of "A Home Called Nebraska," which includes their synagogue and the families they have helped settle. 

“Refugee Shabbat was a beautiful moment, and our work together continues,” Zack said.

Refugee Shabbat 2022 will take place next year March 4-5.

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