Helping refugees is our duty

By Gideon Sylvester, January 9, 2014
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This summer, I officiated at the wedding of Sahar. She is a beautiful, brilliant and successful doctor, but life had not always been easy.

Growing up in Iran, she was constantly harassed and humiliated. Despite her brilliance, her schoolwork was regularly failed and each morning, she was singled out to burn the Israeli flag in front of the entire school. Pupils were taught that they must wash three times after touching a dog or a pig, but seven times after touching a Jew.

Eventually, after 12 years of waiting, Sahar’s family received passports, packed a suitcase and fled to Vienna. As they waited to claim refugee status there, Sahar was spat on in the streets by racist Austrians, who assumed that she was a Turkish Muslim.

When she arrived in Israel for her wedding, she was held for hours by Israeli security officials who accused her of being an Iranian spy.

We must welcome those whom the world spurns

Her tale illustrates the horrors of life as a refugee. Today, the state of Israel ensures that Jewish refugees are a rarity, but most of us still bear memories of the suffering, faced by our grandparents or great-grandparents as they escaped poverty and persecution. While they were fortunate enough to find shelter on these shores, many others were murdered when no refuge was forthcoming. No wonder that the Bible, written thousands of years ago, repeatedly commands us to care for the stranger, for we of all people understand the suffering they face.

That’s why it’s clear to me, that wherever possible, our synagogues should help immigrants. Far from detracting from a synagogue’s work, these activities can only enhance it.

I am not alone in this opinion. Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, the second chief rabbi of Israel, reaffirmed that care for others, regardless of their faith is not just an act of expediency or personal piety, but a fundamental religious obligation laid down in the Mishnah. Helping others is not something we do at expense of our Jewish responsibilities; it is an integral part of them.

This idea was repeated by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow in a responsum commending people to donate to appeals after Hurricane Sandy, and by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner who ruled that Israeli should donate to poor Palestinians living in refugee camps.
I attended yeshivot which prided themselves on their intense study programmes and very high standards. It was an enormous privilege to be surrounded by such brilliant and successful young men and yet something about the elitism troubled me. I shared my concerns with my beloved teacher Rabbi Micky Rosen, a brilliant scholar whose wonderful Yakar community always had its fair share of professors, mavericks and misfits. His answer made a deep impression. He said: “Gideon, in Judaism there is a concept called lovingkindness”. In other words, our synagogues must also welcome those upon whom the rest of the world looks down.

Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum records the terrible brutality of that racist regime, and its many accomplices, the millions of white people who stood by and allowed it to happen. But there is one wall dedicated to what we might call the “righteous among the nations” — those people, including many Jews, who took courageous stands protesting against injustice and supporting the downtrodden. Each time we see human suffering, we must decide whether we will be among the bystanders or the righteous.

It’s true that rabbis are overwhelmed by the need to teach Jewish laws and traditions to their communities. They also face a constant barrage of charitable appeals. No one can attend to them all.
But when people see that their spiritual leaders are at the forefront of supporting urgent ethical calls, and that Judaism has a profound and relevant moral message, they are inspired. They join synagogues, become active in the community and take up classic elements of Jewish observance.

As we help others, we are faithful to our history, loyal to our religious values and we invest in the future of our own communities. Helping non-Jewish refugees is a profoundly Jewish activity.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel

Last updated: 5:13pm, January 10 2014