As we gather around our Passover seder tables this year, we will yet again retell the story of the Exodus and celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt. As we retell and celebrate the Exodus, just as the Jewish community has done for generations, something will be different this year. This year, on our minds will be the image of Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and the millions of people who are still making their own “exodus from slavery,” the current global refugee crisis.
Recent events have shed a new light on a crisis that has been going on for many years but only sparked global attention in the past few months. Inspired by the words of the Torah, “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34), members of my congregation, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, in New Brunswick, have taken action to follow the dictates of our faith and welcome refugees into our community.
In November 2015, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple joined the Refugee Resettlement Interfaith Coalition of Central New Jersey, a coalition committed to welcoming and assisting refugees as they arrive in our communities. We were overjoyed by the more than 300 New Jerseyans who marched together in solidarity to help raise in excess of $35,000. Through this coalition, we are continuing to take part in the Take Ten Campaign, calling every community in the country to resettle at least 10 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
The chair of our effort, temple board member Frederick Kaimann eloquently describes our experience:
“Earlier this year, a family of six refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have been vetted and given refugee resettlement by the U.S. State Department, moved into a three-bedroom apartment on my block in Highland Park (total coincidence). The family has four children, ages one to 12, and they have been living in Uganda since fleeing their home more than six years ago. I picked them up from Newark airport with a volunteer from the Highland Park Minyan and moved them into a home furnished by donations from members of our community.”
This family, and many more in our community, reflects the nature of those seeking freedom. Our congregation is honored to be among those helping to resettle them in our community ,and it truly is a privilege and an appropriate Jewish response to suffering.
It is inspiring to know that our community in New Jersey is not alone and that faith communities throughout North America are engaging in similar initiatives to uphold our values of providing refuge for those in need. Throughout the United States and Canada, the Reform Jewish community has demonstrated our commitment to welcoming the stranger by educating their congregations about the refugee crisis; collecting funds and resources for refugees entering North America and living abroad; engaging with local refugee agencies; and urging their local and federal legislatures to ensure a robust response to the global refugee crisis.
As a rabbi, I teach that we cannot stand idly by as over half of our nation’s governors, including here in New Jersey, oppose resettling Syrian refugees in their states, and as over 40 pieces of anti-refugee legislation have been introduced on the state and federal level in 2016 alone. We must speak out against efforts to limit refugees based on nationality and religious background, and work to treat all refugees with justice and compassion. Additionally, we must push our government to do more to respond to this crisis to maintain the United States’ long legacy of providing a safe haven and opportunity. With more than four million refugees fleeing Syria, accepting just 10,000 this year is sadly not enough. We must urge the U.S. government to respond more vigorously to this crisis by resettling not just 10,000, but 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
The Haggada reminds us that “in every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt.” As we experience this move from slavery to freedom this Passover, let us take others along on our journey. This year, it is not enough to symbolically relive the Exodus; we must engage with those who are living it every day and help them to achieve liberation.