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