Rokeya Akhter, 53, a Muslim-American woman living in Queens, came to America from Bangladesh 24 years ago. She decided to leave her home country after her first husband robbed and then abandoned her and her infant daughter.
“When a husband leaves, it’s the woman’s fault,” she said. “It is nothing but a struggle in that society.” She quickly grew weary of the constant pity and the guilt and applied for a visa to the United States. She told her family she was leaving the day before her flight. “I moved here to give my daughter a better life,” said Akhter, who today works as an account coordinator for a cosmetics company. “Everything I do, I do for my daughter.”
The aftermath of President Trump’s hastily enacted executive order — which closed the nation’s borders to refugees from around the world for 120 days, stopped the admission of refugees from war-torn Syria indefinitely and barred citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 90 days — has left Akhter feeling “terrified.”
“Fear is now everywhere,” she told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “I am worried. I do not know how to overcome this.”
For Akhter, one point of light amid the uncertainty is her involvement in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an interfaith dialogue group for Jewish and Muslim women. As the co-leader of the Queens chapter, Akhter helps facilitate the group of 18 Muslim and Jewish women, equally represented, who meet once a month in members’ homes. Together, they discuss religious practice, family and their shared hopes and fears for the future.
“Joining the Sisterhood lifts me up,” said Akhter, who described praying “side by side” with the Jewish women when one of the group members recited Kaddish for her mother. She was “shocked” by how similar the prayer was to Muslim prayers. “We have become family.”
In a quickly shifting political landscape, interest in the group has boomed, said Sisterhood founder Sheryl Olitzky. Though interest began to spike during the divisive election season, in the past few weeks she has seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of women reaching out to join. At this point, the Sisterhood is averaging 20 new requests to join a day, said Olitzky.
“When I started this group three years ago, there is no way I could have predicted how crucial the work would be,” said Olitzky, speaking to The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “Now, I realize the timeliness of the mission. Women aren’t willing to sit back anymore. We are scared and frustrated and willing to take matters into our own hands.”
Particularly in New York, interest in the group is soaring. While there are currently 50 active chapters nationwide, with over 2,000 women on the waitlist, four new chapters are slated to start in Manhattan (adding to one already active chapter), three in Westchester (adding to the two already active), two in Brooklyn (one already active) and one more in Queens (one already active). There are also several active chapters throughout New York state, including Rochester, Albany, New Paltz and Kingston.
Salaam Shalom is far from the only interfaith group gaining momentum as the immigration crisis unfolds. Several leaders are describing the situation as a “never again” moment for the Jewish community, drawing an explicit connection between the refugee ban and last Friday’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Never again will we allow refugees to be handed over to their executioners,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee support and advocacy group. Hetfield described the current situation as “unprecedented.” The Jewish community, he said, “needs to show the Trump administration that we are speaking with a loud, clear voice.”
Several Jewish families have been affected by the ban. According to Hetfield, a Jewish Iranian man in his late 20s and his middle-aged mother may now be unable to enter the U.S. (He declined to name the applicants, citing privacy concerns.) The Jewish Week has learned that a Yeshiva University graduate school student has also been affected by the ban.
“The University is monitoring these developments closely and will keep you apprised of changes that might affect students and faculty,” wrote President Richard Joel in a statement to students and faculty. Meanwhile, he advised students against traveling to the seven countries mentioned in the ban.
In addition to attending protests and signing petitions against the executive order (one HIAS petition now has 1,700 signatures from rabbis across the country), Hetfield urged community members to contact the White House and members of Congress. “We need to scream about how unacceptable this is,” he said. “We are not going to take this sitting down.”
Hetfield pointed out the “particular irony” of the ban coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day, which took place on Jan. 27. (The White House is separately under fire for failing to mention Jews or anti-Semitism in its statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; see story on page 24.)
“Trump didn’t create the xenophobia we are seeing, but he is exploiting it,” said Hetfield. “Refugees are an easy target — voiceless and vulnerable.”
Opposition to the president’s executive order was widespread in the Jewish community. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements criticized the Muslim ban, as did the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America; such an alignment on sensitive issues is rare in the Jewish community. Also criticizing the ban, though in very measured terms, was the charedi umbrella group Agudath Israel.
It appeared as if the Zionist Organization of America was alone among major American Jewish groups to strongly support President Trump’s executive order.
“The draft Executive Order,” its statement said, “addresses the dangerous flaws with the U.S. vetting and immigration system that have enabled foreign terrorists to perpetrate fatal terrorist attacks on American soil, including 9/11, and the Boston Marathon and San Bernadino massacres. If actions such as those contemplated by the draft Executive Order are not taken, the American people will continue to be attacked again and again by foreign terrorists. In addition, the draft Executive Order is humane, and begins the process of establishing safe zones for vulnerable Syrian refugees.”
The Anti-Defamation League did not hold back in condemning the executive order. “History will look back on this order as a sad moment in American History — the time when the president turned his back on people fleeing for their lives,” said ADL executive director Jonathan Greenblatt. “This will effectively shut America’s doors to the most vulnerable people in the world who seek refuge from unspeakable pain and suffering.” The organization vowed to “relentlessly … fight this policy in the weeks and months to come” because “our history and heritage compel us to take a stand.” The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a large umbrella organization that incorporates 15 national Jewish organizations and 125 local federations, similarly condemned the executive order. “We are deeply concerned about President Trump’s actions on immigration and refugees, and the callous decision to take such action on International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the JCPA. “These pronouncements not only severely restrict immigration, they instill fear among existing immigrant populations that they are not welcome and may be at risk.” The American Jewish World Service, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women also all released statements criticizing the policy.
Solomon Hoffman, 24, a volunteer leader for the New York chapter of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice advocacy group, spent several hours over the past week organizing and participating in protests. Last Wednesday he attended an emergency faith rally for Muslims and immigrants in Washington Square Park. On Sunday, he joined a rally against the ban in Battery Park. (On Saturday night, a large contingent of Jewish protesters at JFK Airport joined in a musical Havdalah service at Terminal 4. The hashtag #MyPeopleWereRefugeesToo helped Jewish protesters find each other in the crowd.)
“Our moment is now,” said Hoffman, a Reconstructionist Jew. Seeing so many members of the tribe at the rallies was fortifying, he said. “This is a moment to tap into our communal identity and history,” he said. “As Jews, we feel the call.”
Debby Glasser, a congregant at Temple Israel Center, a Conservative synagogue in White Plains, is feeling the call. She is leading the synagogue’s partnership with HIAS, part of a national effort to resettle local Syrian refugee families. (As of December, more than 250 synagogues throughout North America joined the initiative.)
“The Jewish story — our story — is about being the stranger,” said Glasser, 62. “It’s a part of who I am. I can’t sit by and watch that story repeat.”
Helping local Syrian families adjust to their new lives involves “everything from registering their children for school to appealing to landlords for affordable rent to taking them to the grocery store and explaining there is no hondling over prices in this country,” she said. Over the weekend, calls and emails from volunteers have been flooding in. “It’s just walking them [the refugees] through everyday life, but there’s a calling here.”
Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, said “separating the myths from the facts” is essential. “Policy is being driven by misinformation and misconceptions,” she told The Jewish Week in a phone interview last week. She cited a recent study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, which found that only 3 of the 859,629 refugees admitted into the United States from 2001 on have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks, and none was carried out (none of those implicated were Syrian). She voiced concerns, echoed by experts, that the current ban will not only fail to deter terrorism, but may exacerbate the security situation.
“By not rescuing those in need, we are in fact enabling the condition we fear the most,” she said. People “living in limbo,” particularly youth, are most “vulnerable to radicalization. Cutting off rescue increases the threat to our security, it doesn’t decrease it.”
What the Multifaith Alliance and local faith leaders bring to the table is “moral authority and vast constituencies with real mobilizing power,” Bennett continued. One “glimmer of hope” amid the “horrific tragedies” in the Middle East is the partnership between Israeli and Syrian organizations, she said. “Jews and Muslims have been able to rise above politics, above stereotypes of one another and form a system of support,” Bennett said. “We can do the same in this country.”
Debby Perelmuter, 67, is Akhter’s co-leader at the Queens chapter of Salaam Shalom. A Reform Jew, she founded the chapter last spring when she started to feel an “unprecedented divisiveness in our country.”
“I said to myself, ‘I have to do something — I’m not just going to sit here,’” she told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. As the election progressed and negative rhetoric about Muslims and Jews began circulating on social media, the true import of the chapter began to hit home.
“When there’s fear, it’s tempting to focus on what we can’t do,” she said. “But what we can do is start getting to know each other as people. One on one, one step at a time. First we build bonds, then we trust each other. We laugh together, we pray together and we realize how similar we are. That’s how you fight the fear.”