D’var Torah-First Day of Pesach 2021
March 28, 2021
The Unfinished Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry
Chag Sameach. My thanks to Rabbi Weininger for his kind invitation to deliver the D’var Torah on this, the first day of Pesach this year.
I am appreciative of and grateful for the support of both the clergy and the lay leadership here at Adath for their encouragement and involvement over the years for the Rescue of those Ethiopian Jews that remain in Ethiopia longing to be re-united with first degree blood relatives in Eretz Yisrael.
As we hold our Seders and celebrate Pesach, we re-learn each year about the hardships imposed on the Israelites while they were slaves and oppressed in ancient Egypt. We re-learn about their miraculous redemption and the Exodus from Egypt.
What better time than Pesach to bring to the attention of Jews here in our congregation as well as elsewhere an awareness of the Unfinished Exodus in East Africa where 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk today and have been at risk in some cases for as many as 40 years.
That precious remnant of an ancient Jewish community has been waiting for the completion of its Exodus for far too long. There is a clarion call for World Jewry to help to hasten the completion of the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry, yes in our time, and hopefully before next year they can be in Jerusalem as they and their ancestors have dreamt for over the many centuries since biblical times.
While the Israeli government and World Jewry both earned high praise, and deservedly so, for the airlift of about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews back in 1991 under Operation Solomon, many were left behind.
It’s important to understand the background of life in Ethiopia and some world history as it pertains to the present day situation of Ethiopian Jewry living there.
Let’s begin with geography. Ethiopia is a mountainous region in eastern Africa. It is generally accepted but cannot be definitively established that Ethiopian Jewry traces its origins to a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In ancient times, as was the case in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, there were marriages between relatives in royal families of different nations for political and economic alliances.
So too did Solomon have many wives in his day and at least the one with Makeda, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, was for matters of national interests including trade. It is generally acknowledged and believed by Ethiopians both Jewish and non Jewish that the issue of that marriage was a Prince of Ethiopia known as Menelik. The Ethiopians are very proud of this historical linkage to King Solomon.
Surprisingly perhaps there was a time in Ethiopian History when the Ethiopian Jews had their own minor kingdom. While they prospered for many years, eventually they lost a war and were subjugated. They were oppressed by their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were relegated to certain occupations such as farming and blacksmithing of metals. The latter was considered the work of the devil and was relegated to the Jews. The general population and, in some rural areas yet today, many Ethiopians are fearful of and discriminate against Ethiopian Jews as they believe that Jews turn into hyenas at night.
In the late 19th century the European Rabbi Fleitlovich traveled to Ethiopia to learn whether or not there were Jews living there. He had heard tales of the existence of Ethiopian Jews from travelers to Ethiopia which, at that time, was ruled by Italy as part of the European colonization of the continent of Africa.
Ethiopia is a mountainous country and the Jews lived in remote locations and stayed to themselves as a matter of cultural and economic survival. For those of you that have seen travelogues and feature stories about Christianity in Ethiopia, Aksum is the location of a major Christian church and holy site. It is claimed with pride by the custodians that guard the church that the Ark of the Covenant is there. Non Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are prohibited from entering that sanctuary. The historical connections between biblical Israel and Ethiopia are strong and remain to this day. When one tours Jerusalem one becomes aware that among the four Christian sectors of Jerusalem, one is controlled by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this very day.
This helps to frame the history of Ethiopian Jewry in Ethiopia as Emperor Hailie Selaise in the mid 20th Century referred to himself as the Lion of Judah. And it was a descendant of his that negotiated the ransom of the Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon in 1991.
Our own congregant Herman Markowitz, in his official capacity as a senior executive of the United Israel Appeal, worked behind the scenes with fellow Minnesotan Sen. Rudy Boschwitz to facilitate the transfer of the $35 million ransom payment to the Swiss bank account of President Mengistu thatresulted in the airlift of the
15,000 Ethiopian Jews under the direction of and with the blessing of then President George Herbert Walker Bush.
With this historical background we now have a better framework for understandingthe current situation in which 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk in war-torn Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, back in the 1980s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews lived in the hill country and the mountainous regions of Ethiopia where they were subsistence farmers with crops and cattle. The nation was then like many third world nations, lacking communications such as postal service, telephones, and transportation.
To provide a limited comparison, consider American history back in the revolutionary war times. How difficult would it have been to communicate an important message to someone living in the remote hills of Appalachia? So too it was not easy to get information from the major cities such as Addis Ababa and Gondar where the Jewish Agency staff were working to develop ‘The List’.
To be eligible to be airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon, it was necessary to be interviewed by staff and then formally added to the list. Alas, many Ethiopian Jews living in remote areas either were unaware of this need or were too ill or frail or financially unable to travel to get registered.
Today, there are Ethiopian Jews with first degree blood relatives in Israel that have yet to be authorized to be flown to Israel. And their situation is dire to say the least.
We read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Most of us have never seen first hand a sky filled with locusts that descend upon crop fields and eat all of the crops. Yet in the last twelve months there was such a biblical scale plague of locusts in Ethiopia. To its credit, Israeli agricultural experts and pest control technicians were sent by the Israeli government and their efforts brought some limited relief.
Nonetheless the crops suffered in the aggregate and prices of staples such as the grain known as ‘tef’ (with which Ethiopians make ‘injeera’ a pancake stylebread) increased sharply. The demand for the limited supply of grains was further exacerbated by the need of the government to feed its soldiers that were fighting insurgents near the border with Eritrea. Jews in that region were at additional risk because of the bloodshed and war crimes that were committed by Eritrean soldiers that crossed the border to help the Ethiopian government in its struggle against the rebels in that region.
During the last twelve months, Israel has earned high praise for the airlift of about 2,000 Ethiopian Jews under the Law of Family Reunification. Because of some doubts about the Halachic status of the Jews that remain in Ethiopia, it is not easy for Ethiopian Jews to be admitted to Israel under the Law of Return. If they are allowed entry under this law, they must submit to a formal Orthodox conversion process.
While the airlift of the 2,000 is praiseworthy, there remain today in Ethiopia this at least another 8,000 Ethiopian Jews that are living mostly in squalor and subsist on as few as 500 calories per day. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, and children under the age of 5 are deprived of proper nutrition. It is heart breaking to realize that the health and brain development of these children may penalize them for the rest of their lives once they finally get to Israel.
The Ethiopian Jews sold their farms and moved years ago to the major cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa to be ready to travel to Israel on short notice. They remain in misery and deplorable conditions yet to this day. And in a very practical sense they suffer like the ancient Israelites suffered in Egypt.
However, there’s where the contrast and challenge exist. There is no heartless Pharoah to deny them their Exodus. The Ethiopian Government or any corrupt politician no longer requires a ransom payment. Rather, they are at the mercy of political bickering and politics as well as the bureaucrats and their budgets in Israel.
They are hapless and without resources in a land literally plagued by locusts, poor crops, warring factions, and the ever present hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors.
They live Jewish lives observing kashrut and Shabbat and the Festivals according to strict practices. Their children, whenever possible, attend classes on Hebrew and other subjects to prepare them to be successful in their new lives in Israel when their time to go there to live is at hand.
These resources are NOT provided by the Israeli government in any meaningful amount. Were it not for the efforts of several NGOs based in the U.S. including NACOEJ, more would have died from malnutrition and illness. Only during Pesach does the Jewish Agency provide Passover rations. The other 51 weeks of the year they do not provide relief. The Ethiopian Jews rely on the kindness of North American Jewry.
They are exceedingly patient people. Back in 2006 and then again in 2015 the Israeli government promised to complete the effort, they were patient and hopeful. Between 2015 and until about twelve months ago, little was done. We hear governmental leaders in our own communities and state complain about Unfunded Mandates imposed by the federal government on these state and local governmental units. The same unfunded mandates were issued the Israel’s Knesset several times.
In 2006, the Lebanon War broke out and that disrupted then halted the airlift and absorption efforts. In 2015 the Knesset approved the complete transportation and absorption of the Ethiopian Jews yet it failed to provide any funding to the Ministry of Absorption to do so.
As we celebrate Pesach and read the words that all who are hungry are welcome to join us at our Seders and we are encouraged to show concern, compassion, and care for others can there be a better time for us to consider and then act upon the need to complete the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry?
North American Jewry must be the primary advocate for the speedy completion of this modern day Exodus.
As the most affluent Jewish community in the history of the world, can we do anything less than raise our voices and urge our Jewish communal leadership, both lay and professional, to act with dispatch to relieve the suffering and complete this historical modern day Exodus?
The closing words of the Seder – Next Year in Jerusalem – could become a reality for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews if we act now with urgency and resolve.
Let us hope for and work towards making it possible that these 8,000 Ethiopian Jews will be with their families at a Seder in Israel next Pesach.
My Ema was born in Pulawy, Poland in 1922. My Saba moved her and my Savta when my Ema was three or four, because Pulawy had been taken over by (I believe) Soviets and my Saba was concerned for his family. They moved to what was then known as Palestine, and eventually Israel became a state, as we know. I can’t remember what year it was that I was told there was an invasion and all the people were murdered. Only one of my mother’s family members survived.
My mom joined the British Army and met my father on a train to Cairo. They say it was love at first sight, but, my Ema wanted to live in the Land of Milk and Honey and thought all Americans were rich, and my father was raised to believe all Jews are rich. Boy, were they fooled!
After they were married, my father sent my Ema and my sister who was born in 1945 to the States to live with my father’s people. (Side note: My sister was the first baby to travel in a military plane overseas. She's actually in the Guinness World Book of Records.) My father's people were all Christians and they hated that my father married my Ema. The only ones that helped her was my Grandma and my father’s youngest brother.
I wasn't raised Jewish. In fact, I barely knew what being Jewish meant. When I was very young, I knew that there was something different about my Ema because she always talked funny on the phone. And when she would write to my Savta, I couldn't read what she was writing. We lived in Niagara Falls, NY and eventually I learned some things about being Jewish, including what anti-Semitism was. One day, when we were on our way to the lake for a BBQ, we stopped on the side of the road, and my father got out of the car and he was screaming and yelling and my mother was crying. I didn't understand what they were doing and then as we drove away, I saw a sign that said "no dogs or Jews allowed.” It wasn’t written in by someone; it was actually a part of the sign.
My siblings and I attended church and it was very weird for me because at that time the ministers and Sunday school teachers were still preaching about how the Jews killed Christ and were bad people. Eventually, I was the only one attending church, and I just would shrink down in the pews because I thought they were talking about my Ema (they were) and that was hurtful.
Years later, I asked my Ema why she sent me to Church and she said, "Because I wanted you to learn about God.” And I said, "I could have learned about God in a Synagogue or from you, but you sent me to a place, instead, that was teaching me about Jesus and how the Jewish people were murderers.” I think it was probably more about my father and his family than anything else. I didn't understand why he cared if we went to a Synagogue or not - he married a Jewish woman, why would you care that your children were Jewish?
Fast-forward to when my Ema passed away in 2012, I decided to move to where my daughter was living in Florida, but I didn't like it there at all. I was home-sick for Minnesota. I called my headhunter and told her I was moving back. I asked her to find me some interviews to do because I would be in Minnesota the following week. She called me right back and said there was an opening at the synagogue by where I had lived in Minnetonka, but I’d have to be there tomorrow as they were at the end of their interview process. I was on a plane the next day.
When I walked into the building, you're gonna think this is weird, when I walked into the building and I walked up the spine I was just like, I can't even describe to you the feeling that came over me but it was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket when you come in from the cold- you know that feeling your body gets. It was so wonderful and I said "no way!" I'm thinking of myself, no, "really?" As I’m walking, I look up and I'm talking to my Ema, "Did you send me here? Is this from you?”. And so then I met with Bernie and Barbara and it was a wonderful interview. They passed me on to meet with the Rabbis and Jim Sherman. I walked out of the room we were interviewing in and there was Giselle and they introduced me to her, and I told that her shoes are going to be big ones to fill (since she had been there 27-28 years). She said I would catch on. Her eyes reminded me of my Aunt June – another sign that I loved. I thought “OMG I'm gonna be working at a synagogue - that's gonna be a breeze compared to working in corporate” because corporate was... at times difficult. It was people trying to climb ladders and, you know, kicking you on their way up and so it was kind of miserable. I had been in the corporate world since 1974 so it was time for a change. Boy, was I in for a HUGE surprise – there's lots of work that must be done for our congregation!
When I started working at Adath, I was learning and seeing all the things that were going to teach me about this Jewish lifestyle. I read lots of books from the library; I went to services on Shabbat not long after I started, and the up and down and up and down and I was like, "oh man” because it's not just for half an hour. You're going to be up and down for a couple of hours. Suddenly... Cantor Buckner began to sing and the congregation joined him. I closed my eyes and I was listening to them sing, and tears rolled down my face, because I know… I swear... in the background I heard my Ema’s beautiful voice. And I remembered growing up with songs that the congregation was singing that sounded like what my Ema would sing. And the congregation sounded so beautiful.
It's been seven years, almost eight since I joined Adath. I have been so blessed to be here working with and for wonderful people. A staff and congregation like no other… that I love to work for and with as we travel through life cycle events. I have no doubt who I am now and the way of the Jewish people is completely in-line with what I have always felt to be true. I have come full circle.
Dr. Mitch Bender
D’var Torah Vayikra
March 14, 2021
Adath Antiracism Committee Community Discussion
Thank you for the honor of delivering the D’var Torah for this Adath Antiracism Committee (AAC) meeting. It has also been a privilege to be a member of the Committee and participate in its work. The Committee believes that a frank discussion of racism, both individual and structural, can lead to progress towards ending racism in both the Adath and at-large communities. The tragic events of last summer occurring in Minneapolis as well as in Pittsburgh, Poway, California, Charleston SC, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and other locations have galvanized our community into action, with the hope of making progress towards the end of racism. In addition, Jews of color in the Adath community have openly discussed the anguish and discomfort with some of their Adath experiences. This loyal group of congregants is seeking a secure and fulfilling place in their congregation for people of color. Clearly, now is the time for both discussion and action.
My task today is to discuss this week’s parsha, Vayikra, and what it might teach us about our response to racism. Vayikra means “to call out.” Hashem calls out to Moshe in the Mishkan or Tent of the Meeting. This parsha continues with the elaboration of the laws of ritual sacrifice to Hashem and how the Kohanim are to conduct themselves during this ceremony. Through animal sacrifice and the detailed and meticulous ceremony that surrounds it, the Hebrews would be able to make expiation and atone for their sins. I must admit, however, that I had difficulty relating the text to our topic today, making progress towards ending racism.
If we define anti-racism as ACTION AND DEEDS against racist behavior, I asked myself, “what insight does Parsha Vayikra teach us about becoming anti-racists? Fortunately, Rabbi Weininger was able to help guide me towards the teaching of Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, N.J. His teaching forms the framework of this D’var Torah. I want to thank both Rabbis Weininger and Pitkowsky for their guidance. Their assistance was invaluable.
The first word in today’s parsha is Vayikra. As previously mentioned, Vayikra means "to call out". Vayikra’s final letter, as written in the Torah, is the aleph and it is traditionally written by the Torah scribe with a letter smaller than the rest of the word. Why is this so, what does it mean and what can it teach us about our response to racism? One explanation from a 14th century commentator (Ba’al Haturim) is that when Moshe was acting as a scribe for writing the Torah, he did not want the reader to think that he was important enough for Hashem to have a planned conversation with him. Moshe wished to lower his profile. He therefore intended to leave off the aleph from the word Vayikra. The intention was to change the word “Vayikra” to “vayikar,” altering the sentence from “The Lord called to Moshe” to “The Lord had a chance encounter with Moshe.” Moshe, the prophet who according to the tradition, had a special relationship with Hashem and was the only prophet to “see God face to face.” Yet Moshe wished to convey to the reader his sense of humility. He becomes the role model for humility, despite his unique status.
Another commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain offers another perspective on the issue of the small aleph. As previously noted, the aleph is the final letter in the word Vayikra. However, it is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue). The first word of the Decalogue is anochi, and the statement is, “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and house of bondage. Sachs opines that the diminutive aleph teaches us that Hashem’s presence is not only manifested in grand gestures (examples- parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the Ten Plagues), but also in the small, every day, seemingly mundane events of our daily lives. The fact that we are alive is a miracle and therefore, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis is important. This extends to how we treat others, including people of color, people with disabilities, people with sexual orientations different from ours and those from disadvantaged groups. Ordinary, routine and seemingly unimportant daily actions can have great impact on others. Thus racism, both on an individual and structural level has a great impact on these vulnerable groups.
To be clear, structural racism refers to things like redlining, people of color paying higher mortgage rates than White people, medical disparities between Caucasians and people of color, higher incarceration rates for Blacks and Latinos and challenges for people of color in the education system. Thus, People of Color, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and the LGBTQ community feel, ‘less than,” excluded and believe that White people have special privilege in our society, known as White Privilege. Perhaps one remedy for this is to adopt the Moshe humility model and have White people shed their hubris, acknowledge their privilege, cease to be judgmental of those who look different from them and be respectful in their communication with members of the Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ communities. The diminutive aleph in today’s parsha is serving as a teacher for us. It teaches us to act with more humility and let go of arrogance and insensitivity. It reminds us that our daily actions and language have profound impact on others, particularly with the more vulnerable groups.
As Hashem called out to Moshe in the Mishkan, Parsha Vayikra calls out to us to address racism both in our congregation and community at large. Our response should include humility, appreciation for all the blessings in our daily lives, compassion for those who are not yet liberated, and ACTION toward ending racism and increasing opportunity for everyone. We Jews understand the bitter taste and malevolence of racism and oppression and we are reminded of this at every Seder we attend. We have been liberated- now, it is our obligation to help liberate those facing racism. The Torah is exhorting us to take action. We can do this. Hashem does not suggest that we pursue justice, but rather demands it in the phrase "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof". We have taken action and supported the oppressed before- It is in our spiritual DNA, and together, we can make progress in helping to end racism.
What changes and personal sacrifice are you committed to making in your daily life this year? What will you reflect upon not only at Yom Kippur, but next year, 5782 when we read this Parsha anew?
For more information visit Adath Antiracism Committee webpage at https://www.adathjeshurun.org/antiracism
D'var Torah Vayakhel-Pekudei
HIAS invites us to sign a welcome letter to our elected members of Congress encouraging leadership on issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers. Sign the welcome letter here.
I am very grateful to have this opportunity to speak today at Adath’s participation in Refugee Shabbat, a HIAS-led initiative that has been observed this year at over 300 congregations in the United States as well as in synagogues located throughout Canada and Europe. In a sense, Refugee Shabbat mirrors and reinforces a central ethos of the Jewish people of maladjustment to gross injustices perpetrated toward our fellow human beings and an insatiable search drawing upon the rich tapestry of Jewish theological teachings, ethics, history, and experiences to repair the world.
As you quite likely know, HIAS was initially established as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Throughout its existence now totaling over 100 years so as to make us the oldest continuously operating refugee rights organization in the United States, HIAS has served as the voice of the American Jewish community dedicated to refugee protection. HIAS has always and continues to stand for a single overriding proposition: we rescue, protect, and provide dignity to people whose lives are in danger for being who they are – that is, people who are persecuted for their religion, skin color, sexual identity or sexual orientation, political thought, social membership, or other inherently unalterable characteristic.
But in the adherence to this commitment, something profound has changed within HIAS and the world in which we live. For much of its existence, HIAS rescued refugees because they were Jewish; today, we rescue refugees because we are Jewish.
So, permit me to illustrate how HIAS has changed while simultaneously remaining unchanged in our commitment to refugee protection.
In the early 1950s, a survivor of the Shoah appeared at the local immigration office in New York City for a naturalization interview, which required her to pass a rudimentary test in American civics. Each question posed by the examiner was met by a blank and confused stare, until the examiner, Leon Rosen, asked the following: “Madam, what is the highest law of the land?” to which the applicant triumphantly responded: “HIAS.”
I had previously thought that this was a charming although an anachronistic story until just over a year ago, during a trip I took to South America to visit various HIAS offices, I entered a refugee shantytown in Barranquilla, Colombia along with some HIAS employees. Upon entering this camp and arising seemingly out of nowhere, a young Venezuelan refugee girl, probably around 5 years old, literally flung herself at the HIAS child psychologist in our group, and through her laughter, tears, and an embrace that would not end, this girl poured forth an excited monologue in Spanish, none of which I understood except for her recurrent recitation of “HIAS” which at least for that moment and presumably for many moments thereafter was for her the highest law of the land.
So, permit me to take a journey with you in exploration of the commitment of HIAS to effectuating a statement made by the Reverend Martin Luther King at Temple Israel – not the one on Hennepin Avenue, but rather in Los Angeles – that “we are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We are commemorating today the second HIAS-led Refugee Shabbat. The first such commemorative initiative took place roughly two years ago, and it also attracted the participation of hundreds of synagogues seeking to express their unquenchable support for the cause of refugee protection, although this event tragically ended a week later with the murders of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which the murderer, right before entering the synagogue, posted on Social Media “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
In its essence, Refugee Shabbat is a HIAS-organized initiative intended to create sacred time and sacred space to focus on and rededicate to the protection of the stranger. I believe that this observance has six main resonances for our own lives as American Jews, consisting of the following:
1. Its observance is a recognition that the Torah commands us 36 times to love and welcome the stranger. This is a personal prescriptive imperative. It cannot be delegated to the sovereign or to any third party. Quite simply, this is our personal responsibility. This is such an important and perhaps even counterintuitive notion that the Torah does not even give us an option simply to act kindly to the stranger. Rather, the Torah is direct and unequivocal in its commandment to love the stranger for we were once strangers.
2. Second, Refugee Shabbat constitutes a recognition that there is no hierarchy in human value because Judaism adheres to and honors the belief of B’tzelem Elohim – that we are all conceived in the image of God. Whether life springs from the master work of a deity or is a biological evolutionary function, Refugee Shabbat reaffirms that there cannot be any justification or gradations in the essential value of human beings, much less policies of exclusion, minimization, discrimination, stratification and persecution.
3. Third, Refugee Shabbat draws upon the central and recurring story of the Jewish people of persecution, displacement, migration, and resilience, and then weaves together this narrative saga with our collective memories, morality, and learning to create in the words of Elie Wiesel the foundational principle of hope for a better world.
4. Fourth, Refugee Shabbat constitutes our immediate connection to our own personal narratives – that is, to the lives of our own ancestors. I would surmise that nearly all of the congregants in this sanctuary, to say nothing of the overwhelming population of Israel, have ancestors who fled persecution precisely in the hope of creating better lives for their progeny, so this is an opportunity to recognize and honor not only that they endured, but that they prevailed.
5. Furthermore, in our work on refugee protection, HIAS on behalf of the Jewish people interacts with persecuted populations throughout the world, and in so doing, we oftentimes change their narratives on the Jewish people. In short, we are performing quite corollary work to the JCRC in that we declare that it is precisely because we are Jewish that we extend hope and protection in the creation of new lives to those who have few options and little hope.
6. And finally, Jews have something quite akin to an ownership interest in the U.S. refugee program. The entire development of U.S. laws recognizing that humanitarian protection should be grounds for immigration relief is embedded in the Refugee Act of 1951, the keystone document creating a right of protection to those being persecuted, which was a long-overdue reaction to the xenophobia and moral myopia that witnessed the refusal of the United States to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Shoah.
In terms of the identity of HIAS, we were created by American Jews over 100 years ago as an assertion of Klal Yisroelto assist, protect, and resettle Jews fleeing the pogroms of czarist Russia. Throughout the entirety of our existence, we have facilitated the rescue and preservation of Jewish communities in peril, from Russia, the Soviet Union, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Nazi Germany where 23 HIAS employees died providing protective services to victims of Nazi atrocities, and the list of theatres in which HIAS in essence has said the resonating words of Hineni, here I am, is coterminous with each and every episode in which Jews found themselves imperiled simply for being Jewish.
The germinating seeds of HIAS were planted by the American Jewish community and it is from this sliver of a population comprised of people with big hearts, unparalleled generosity, and ethical resolve that over the course of our existence we have evolved into one of the world’s most impactful and most honored humanitarian relief organizations. We maintain operations today in 16 countries located on 5 continents providing direct humanitarian relief to over 1.4 million people whose lives are in danger simply for being who they are. We have a $90 million budget and our principle funders are the United States Government – in particular, the Department of State, the Department of Health & Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development – the United Nations, private foundations, corporate funders, and individual contributors. We are the only faith-based organization holding a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, the world’s chief agency for refugee protection, which makes us the chief implementer of a wide range of global initiatives on behalf of refugees.
The history of HIAS can be broken down into 3 stages:
1. For most of our existence stretching until roughly 1995, we were involved in the rescue, migration, and resettlement of Jewish refugees mainly to the United States.
2. In our second stage of operation, we maintained our focus on the resettlement of refugees and vulnerable populations in the United States, but the beneficiaries of our services expanded from solely Jews to nonsectarian refugee populations, owing chiefly to the blessed reality that the number of Jewish refugees requiring protection had diminished dramatically.
3. In our most recent incarnation which was accelerated substantially by the restrictions on humanitarian protection under the Trump administration, we pivoted significantly to the global stage so that we now provide protective services to refugees in 16 countries located on 5 continents. We are the largest and most impactful refugee rights organization currently working in South America, largely focusing our efforts on refugees from Venezuela, which today is the world’s second largest refugee population.
Today, there are over 80 million persecuted individuals requiring protection, which is the highest such figure in human history. Our language has even developed its own lexicon that categorizes more precisely individuals needing protection – refugees, asylees, internally displaced persons or IDPs, and migrants. The trend line strongly suggests that this figure will continue to increase owing to nationalism, xenophobia, political oppression, climate change, economic downturn, and other push factors that marginalize the “other.”
HIAS seeks to address this tragedy in human history by striving for 3 outcomes:
1. The safe integration of refugees into their host countries, most of which are in the developing world;
2. The repatriation of refugees to their home countries assuming they will be safe and secure; and
3. Resettlement to a third country, which in the HIAS context is disproportionately the United States.
With the election of the Biden Administration, we expect to see a recommitment of the United States to humanitarian values as a cornerstone of our immigration as well as global policies. HIAS is quite well positioned to effectuate key objectives enunciated by the administration in the following specific geographic areas:
1. The Biden Administration has declared its intention to set an annual refugee admissions quota of 125,000, which is a stark increase from the current paltry level of 15,000 that was set in the last year of the Trump Administration. HIAS is one of 9 national resettlement agencies that has been empowered to effectuate the U.S. refugee program. Essentially, we work abroad with the U.S. Department of State and the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to identify vulnerable refugees who also have good prospects for successful resettlement in the United States based on a myriad of factors. HIAS provides sustaining support during the entire ramp-up abroad during which refugees are vetted for admission to the United States, a process that can take well over a year, arranges for their transferal to the United States and entrustment to our local community partners, most of which are Jewish Family & Children Services, and oversees their successful, ongoing resettlement experience in the United States.
2. The Biden Administration has pledged to undertake a major stabilization initiative to address the humanitarian degradation currently producing the refugee crisis in South America, where HIAS is the largest refugee protection agency in that region. Venezuela currently represents the second largest refugee population in the world, but there are also substantial refugee populations coming out of the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua, and Colombia. We provide life-saving services of incalculable benefit to refugees in such areas as: legal representation that allows refugees to access legal protection and benefits; mental health and psychosocial services to enable refugees to overcome the trauma arising from their previous experience of persecution and violence; economic inclusion so as to provide refugees with the tools to economically succeed and gain economic viability in their host countries; and interventions against gender-based violence directed toward LGBTQ refugees and women and girls who are disproportionately victims of predation and sexual exploitation.
3. Perhaps the most immediate challenge facing the Biden Administration is the situation at the southern border which over this past period of time has witnessed a deplorable series of developments – separation of families, incarceration of children, deprivation of asylum applicants to any form of due process, refugees languishing in Mexico who thereby become subject to exploitation and violence. As the only humanitarian agency maintaining offices both in Mexico and in the United States, HIAS has begun to team with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to develop orderly programs intended to reunite families and identify the most vulnerable individuals stuck in Mexico and to then develop programs consistent with U.S. legal norms, economic priorities, and environmental policies to allow asylum seekers to access the U.S. judicial system to determine whether they indeed have a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
While HIAS has a breathtakingly broad global sweep, we ultimately rely on the involvement and commitment by American Jews. Here is a list of actions that each and every one of us in this sanctuary can take:
1. Write Congress to support asylum relief, professionalization of our immigration courts, and an expansion of global humanitarian relief.
2. Join the Facebook group entitled “Jews for Refugees” to keep abreast of new developments pertaining to refugees.
3. See the HIAS Events Page on our website and sign up for various HIAS webinars that explore different facets of refugee law policy and individual experiences.
4. Donate air miles to allow us to reunite children with families.
5. Contribute to bond funds intended to release immigrants from detention (and in this regard, thanks for the Minnesota Rabbinical Association for its work in opening up new avenues for post-conviction relief to immigrants and refugees).
6. Patronize refugee-made products, services and establishments.
7. Contact the Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs within the Mayor’s Office of the City of Minneapolis.
8. Join the HIAS Online Book & Film Club.
9. If you are a Spanish speaker, volunteer remotely to support the HIAS Border Response Team working out of Ciudad, Juarez, or see about volunteering with a local agency representing asylum seekers.
10. There may be some opportunities for lawyers to engage in pro bono projects representing asylum seekers.
11. We recently concluded an agreement with Airbnb in which refugees can avail themselves of substantially reduced short-term lodging, but even here, additional resources are needed to underwrite housing arrangements.
12. Donate used technology equipment or serviceable baby items to refugee families.
13. Incorporate the HIAS Freedom Haggadah into your Passover Seder observances.
Again, thank you for allowing me to share this HIAS saga with you and for your involvement in this year’s Refugee Shabbat.
Conversation over Kiddush:
HIAS is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies, six of which are faith-based. I would be very grateful for your thoughts as to what is the unique Jewish voice in refugee resettlement. What is it that we bring that is so empowering and so life-altering?
Robert Aronson, a member of Adath, is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis and he concurrently serves as the Chair of HIAS. Over the course of his career, he has represented innumerable foreign nationals, largely Jews from the former Soviet Union, in attaining safety in the United States. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Law and was a Fulbright Fellow at the law schools of Harvard University and Moscow State University. In 2017, Bob received the Sidney Barrows Lifetime Achievement Award of the Cardozo Society, the affinity group of Jewish lawyers, jurists and law students in the Twin Cities, for his professional achievements, community service and love of learning.
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share