Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, spearheaded the effort with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that led to the creation of a coalition of 16 Jewish organizations to aid Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan.
Bennett, the widow of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum who was known for his human rights efforts, is a philanthropist, published author, lecturer and entrepreneurial leader. The Jewish Week caught up with her last week. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you believe the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan was necessary?
A: There are two reasons. No. 1, this is probably the worst refugee crisis of our time. Although the refugees are escaping to a number of countries, including Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, the fact is that Jordan seems to be getting the worst of it. There are about 550,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan right now and it is expected that there will be more than one million by the end of the year. That is on top of the 500,000 Iraqi refugees who are still there and the millions of Palestinian refugees who have been there for decades. This is a country of six million people.
Jordan is also one of the poorer countries in the world and this is an enormous drain on its resources. That’s the second reason why there is a great need. The drain is so great that the country is on the verge of being destabilized.
What would be the implications of that happening?
If Jordan falls, it would not good for Israel, it would not be good for the region or for America. We should always remember that Jordan is an important friend of the U.S. in the Middle East.
Have you done anything like this before?
I’ve been involved with the International Rescue Committee for more than 20 years. I got involved after Marc died because he was very much involved with refugee issues. I come from a refugee family myself. I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I was born in Budapest immediately after the war in 1946 and escaped Hungary to France in 1948. We arrived in the U.S. in 1952 and my father died shortly thereafter. So my mother started a new life in this country as a widow with a young child.
Most of the Syrian refugees are women and children. They are not in refugee camps where would have services. Instead, most are urban refugees because they are on their own, somehow trying to manage in cities mostly in northern Jordan. And they live in the desert and in southern Jordan.
Is it a Jewish imperative that we must help?
We Jews are commanded to respond. That is encapsulated in Leviticus 19:16, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”
That is a quote Marc [Tanenbaum] used to invoke all the time, especially when he was dealing with refugee issues.
Have you been to Jordan to see the work the coalition is funding?
I was there in the past but not now. The coalition is working with reliable partners on the ground — organizations that we know: the International Rescue Committee, HIAS, World Jewish Relief —which is working with Save the Children, the Jordanian Red Crescent and Israeli Flying Aid.
How much money has the coalition sent them?
So far we have distributed a little bit more than $200,000. That is the first round of allocations.
You have donated $150,000 of your own money to galvanize the Jewish community behind this issue when it was involved on its own in other humanitarian crises. Why is this different?
Those previous humanitarian crises were no brainers in a sense. What makes this more difficult for the Jewish community is that this is helping people who would be very happy to kill us. Their understanding of Jews and Israel is really through a lens in which we are demonized as a people.