Why synagogues are being asked to mark Refugee Shabbat this weekend

Looking after the ‘stranger’ lies at the heart of the Torah


Probably only a small minority of Jews around the world live in the same country as their great-grandparents did. In less than a century, the once flourishing centres of east European and Middle Eastern Jewry (outside Israel) are fragments of what they were.

Ours is a story of movement and migration. It begins early in the Bible. The first instruction Abraham receives is to “go from your land”. In the opening of this week’s parashah, Yitro, Moses names his firstborn Gershom because “I was a stranger in a strange land” (ger being a “stranger”).

Our experience as a people is meant to sensitise us to others who seek refuge in our midst. As Rabbi Helen Freeman of West London Synagogue — one of a number in the UK that run drop-in centres for asylum-seekers — notes, “Next week’s parashah Mishpatim, which contains some of the core Jewish ethics by which we live our lives, reminds us: ‘You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ [Exodus 23:9].

“That obligation to empathise with the outsider and to care for them is why synagogues host drop-in centres that welcome refugees and asylum-seekers as our guests.”

That Torah imperative is why this week has been designated Refugee Shabbat by Hias+JCore, the alliance formed last year between the London-based Jewish Council for Racial Equality and one of American Jewry’s most venerable organisations, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Rabbi David Mason, who left Muswell Hill (United) Synagogue to become director of Hias+JCore, said, “We’d like to build local synagogue-based programmes to support refugees. We have a programme to support young, unaccompanied asylum-seekers which is growing.”

Hias+JCore looks to foster “a sense of responsibility and compassion for others”, countering the kind of rhetoric that paints those who want to reach Britain as a threat.

For Rabbi Mason, it is not a case of campaigning “to open the borders and let everybody in” but of trying to raise social awareness within the Jewish community and encourage practical help.

“It is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than 50 references to the resident stranger

“In Muswell Hill, the shul twinned with the local Methodist Church and offered volunteer support,” he said. “We heard what asylum-seekers are going through— what it feels like for someone who is in a hotel on £8 a week. Some of the people Hias+JCore support have been granted the right to remain here but given only seven days’ notice to find new accommodation — the government reduced it from 28.”

Maimonides, he pointed out, considered kindness as a defining characteristic of the Jewish people. “We must never lose sight of that,” Rabbi Mason said.

Hannah Gerson, the United Synagogue’s social responsibility manager, cites a quotation from Rabbi Lord Sacks: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is harder is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours.”

The US’s Chesed department tries “our very best to help everyone no matter what, both in the Jewish community and outside,” she said. “Ukrainian refugees are hosted at Kingston and Surbiton United Synagogue and Hendon United Synagogue plays host to families seeking asylum from all over the world.

“Just as our ancestors faced challenges and uncertainties when establishing new lives in new places, we recognise the importance of extending a helping hand to those in need, irrespective of their religion or nationality. Chesed is the Hebrew term for acts of loving-kindness and that is the driving force for all that we do.”

The drop-in centre launched by New North London Synagogue, which is now an independent charity, is visited by 500 people a month — more than 80 per cent of whom go on to secure asylum here.

One of Rabbi Mason’s hopes is to find more legal volunteers able to advise those grappling with the asylum system.

In his book Justice for All, Jeremiah Unterman notes that concern for the other is a hallmark of biblical law. “It is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than 50 references to the resident stranger — almost all positive.”

Other Near Eastern codes in antiquity may mention an obligation to a stranger — in Mesopotamia, for instance, a foreigner was entitled to sell his beer at the going local rate, not forced to do so at a lower price — but these are few and far between, he observed. In contrast to the Torah, “the lack of the inclusion of the stranger in other law collections… leads to the conclusion that the stranger was not a legally protected element of society”.

Notably, the biblical requirement to look after a resident alien is coupled with a reason “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Memory drives morality. If we forget our past, the Bible suggests, our conscience may grow dull.
More recent experience than the Exodus prompts some to act. Sara Nathan and her husband Malcolm have long been supporters of the West London Synagogue drop-in centre for asylum-seekers. In 2015, Sara, her brother Timothy and his then wife Mina Kaye set up the charity Refugees at Home.

“We started it because my sister-in-law’s mum was a refugee from Vienna. My grandparents hosted a Kindertransport boy,” Sara said.

Some of our festivals, she added, “are to do with fleeing and instability — not only Pesach but Succot”.

The charity, which now hosts 750 people, “always need more hosts”, she said. “We’ll host any refugee or asylum-seeker, wherever they come from. The hosts are all sorts of people — quite a few are from a Jewish background.”

Over the past seven years, Sara and Malcolm themselves have offered hospitality to 42 people. “At the moment we have an Afghan and a Yemeni. We have hosted one Palestinian and many Syrians,” she said. “It’s quite a good way of reaching out and integrating with other faiths.”

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