Reminding Ourselves That Light Can Overcome Darkness

Reminding Ourselves That Light Can Overcome Darkness

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is vice president for community engagement at HIAS

This post originally appeared on the Wexner Foundation Blog on December 9, 2015.

Everything changed in one day. On September 2, Americans woke up to see a photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a small boy whose body washed up on the Turkish beach after his family tried to reach safety by boat. For many, this picture broke open our hearts to a crisis that had been underway for years. As Jews, we were further awakened by the images and stories that immediately followed of refugees on trains in Europe trying desperately to cross borders.  

At HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the change was so marked that the staff and I refer to “pre-GAJA” (the Great American Jewish Awakening) and “post-GAJA.” Before September 2nd, refugees were one more important issue on a long list of social ills, but after that day, there was a great outpouring of Jewish interest and communal support for refugees. Congregations, individuals, schools, organizations -- everyone wanted to know how they could help, and especially how they could support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their communities. People understood in a deep way that the plight of refugees is a profoundly Jewish issue.  

HIAS, founded in 1881 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and currently the oldest refugee organization in the world, helps refugees find ways to live in safety and with dignity. In earlier days, as Jews fled from Tsarist Russia, Nazi-occupied Europe, Egypt, Iran, Cuba and the former Soviet Union, HIAS helped them start new lives and adapt to and become part of American culture. At the turn of the 21st century, after the last waves of Jewish refugees came to the U.S., HIAS began to serve refugees of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Today HIAS works in 12 countries around the world providing legal services, psychosocial support and livelihood training to the most vulnerable refugees in both camps and urban settings. HIAS also works with 22 partners (largely Jewish Family Service agencies) to resettle refugees across the U.S. In short, HIAS used to help refugees because theywere Jewish. Now we help refugees because we are Jewish.

I came to HIAS less than two years ago charged with reintroducing the American Jewish community to HIAS and engaging Jews in refugee issues. We began developing and delivering education programs and launching new ways for Jews to support refugees through advocacy, volunteering and tzedakah; the response from the Jewish community was warm, but after September 2nd it became downright enthusiastic. 

Then once again in a single day, everything changed. On Friday, November 13 there were the horrific attacks in Paris. The terrifying news that the attacks were connected to ISIS, combined with the misperception that they were related to an increase in migration of refugees from Syria, led to a significant backlash against refugees. There were calls from politicians across America to stop the resettlement of Syrians to the U.S., to add layers of security protocols onto a refugee program that is already effectively screening for security, and even to register all Muslims who are US citizens. Putting aside the question of whether politicians are using this moment for political gain, many of us, understandably, are afraid in the face of increasing reminders of global terrorism. The extremism and violence on fire across the globe are terrifying.  

But even as our nation experienced a harsh backlash against refugees, much of the Jewish community has refused to simply stop at fear and is bringing that fear face-to-face with history, information and values. 

Some remember that in 1939, the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many were killed --a tragic decision made in a political climate of fear and suspicion. We remember all too well how our country did not discern the difference between the actual enemy and the victims of the enemy.    

Many American Jews feel relieved upon learning about the multi-layered rigorous screening processes that all refugees resettled in the U.S. must undergo before they ever enter the country, including vetting by the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. This is a completely different process than what occurs in Europe, where people simply show up on the shores and borders of Europe seeking asylum.  

Finally, many Jews cite Jewish values as what challenges or channels their first response. When we are told to “welcome the stranger,” or even more challenging, to “love the stranger,” there is an underlying assumption that this might not be our first instinct, and yet the mitzvah calls us to push past our initial fear and discomfort. 

In a letter written on November 19th, 15 Jewish organizations -- including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Union for Reform Judaism -- expressed their support for the resettlement program. They also opposed any proposal that aims to halt or restrict U.S. resettlement efforts. The same day, the Orthodox Union came out with a statement of its own saying “while security concerns must be paramount, our focus as a nation should be on ‘getting to yes’.” The U.S. Holocaust Museum released a similarly strongly worded statement that day as well. 

As I write this post, more than 1,200 rabbis from 47 states and across all denominations (including many Wexner alumni) have just signed a letter to elected officials calling on our country to uphold our great legacy as a nation that welcomes refugees.

Of course there are some in the Jewish community for whom history, information and values do not override their fear, and it is important to acknowledge this and not assume more insidious motives like Islamophobia or xenophobia, though sadly they are at play for some Jews. 

These are very dark days and the world of late has felt particularly shattered, frightening and even full of evil. We are challenged as Jewish leaders to acknowledge that darkness and fear but not become mired in it. When we light the hannukiah this week we light in the tradition of Hillel (not Shammai), increasing the light each night even though that is not the most accurate reflection of what happened. (The oil actually diminished with each passing night, not increased). Yet, every Kislev, at the darkest point of the year, we gather together and envision what could be possible. We reaffirm our commitment to courageously stand up for what we believe: Jews and all people should not be persecuted but instead be able to live their lives in safety and freedom and with dignity. We remind ourselves that light can overcome darkness, and that we, and our communities, must be part of making that so.   

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