Dressed in casual clothes, with dark hair, glasses and an air of happy exhaustion, the 37-year-old father of two looked right at home among the other dads gathered in the sanctuary of Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) at last Friday’s “Tot Shabbat” service.
But for Munther Alaskry, an engineer by training who worked as an interpreter and bomb clearer for the U.S. military in Iraq, the journey to this Brooklyn synagogue was certainly much longer and more harrowing than anyone else’s that Friday night.
And his warm welcome at CBE — complete with signs held by children who were also led by the Reform congregation’s song leader, Debbie Brukman, in an Arabic rendition of “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” — was one more example of the growing ties between Muslims and Jews in the wake of Donald Trump’s divisive campaign and election to the presidency. Local chapters of the interfaith group Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom are burgeoning in the city, and on Monday night, about 20 rabbis organized by the liberal rabbinic group T’ruah were arrested on the Upper West Side protesting Trump’s travel ban and carrying signs that read “welcome refugees”; about 200 people joined the march down Broadway to the Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle.
“Shabbat Shalom, everybody,” Alaskry told the crowd at CBE. “I’m overwhelmed. I’m speechless. I am feeling I am blessed.”
Alaskry had arrived at JFK earlier in the day with his wife and two children, after spending a week in terrifying limbo, first at the airport in Istanbul and then in his home country of Iraq; the family had been sent back after the Trump administration’s executive order banning Syrian refugees and halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (including Iraq) caused them to be removed from a U.S.-bound plane in Turkey.
Alaskry was traveling with his family to the U.S. on what is known as a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), available to Afghan and Iraqi nationals employed by the U.S. government during its wars there. He had just received the visa — which took him seven years and extensive vetting to obtain — in December and was looking forward to making a new life for his family in America, free from the threats of violence and death he and other local combat interpreters employed by the U.S. military routinely face. He had quit his job, sold his car and many of the family’s possessions and spent $5,000 on plane tickets to the U.S.
As he awaited word on his family’s fate (the Trump administration ultimately lifted its ban on interpreters), Alaskry was in contact with a U.S.-based nonprofit called No One Left Behind. The organization was founded in 2013 by former Army Capt. Matthew Zeller and his Afghan interpreter Janis Shinwari with a mission to safely resettle Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters in the U.S. Zeller credits Shinwari with saving his own life when Shinwari killed two Taliban fighters who were poised to shoot him. No One Left Behind is dedicated to ensuring “that America treats our interpreters as the heroes and veterans they are.”
As it turned out, people connected to No One Left Behind were also reaching out to their networks for help, and soon enough Alaskry’s case ended up on the radar of Gabrielle Lipson Starkman, a member of CBE and a lawyer at a large global law firm based in Los Angeles. The mother of two young boys, Lipson Starkman had become activated in the wake of Trump’s election, joining a group called #GetOrganizedBK, which was started right after the November election by City Councilman Brad Lander to “resist Trump regime policies of injustice, corruption and hate” and is hosted at CBE.
For her, the group — which consists of approximately 15 working groups tackling issues including: fighting appointments; preparing for the 2018 and 2020 elections; and climate change — provides a means through which she can realize a “professional calling to do pro bono work, and [that] intersects squarely with tikkun olam.”
After she heard about Munther’s situation, Lipson Starkman sprung into action. “I wanted him to have a welcome when he got to the states.”
She solicited a volunteer from CBE to pick up the Alaskry family from the airport, and reached out to her firm’s team of lawyers working with No Ban JFK to send an Arabic-speaking attorney along.
With the help of CBE’s Rabbi Rachel Timoner, she also arranged for the synagogue to host the Alaskrys for the children’s Shabbat service and meal (only Munther was awake enough to attend). The congregation’s youth group was tasked with putting together gift baskets of food for the family and making signs.
Members also pitched in and bought phone cards for the Alaskrys, who will be resettling in upstate Rochester. On Saturday, another family went with them to the Statue of Liberty. Lipson Starkman and others are also trying to find contacts in the Rochester Jewish community who can welcome the family there and possibly help with job leads and other practical issues of resettlement.
“I think we feel like we’ve been there, we know what it’s like to be targeted,” Lipson Starkman said about her and her community’s eagerness to help the Alaskrys and others subject to the travel ban. “We need to stand up for our brothers and sisters.”
Adding that she and Alaskry “actually talked a bit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said, “[helping him resettle] totally transcends politics. He was generally aware of the conflict, but it didn’t seem to have any relevance to him personally. It didn’t have any bearing on his identity, on him as a secular Muslim from Iraq.
“He was so overwhelmed and surprised,” she continued. “I don’t think he expected the Jewish community to be welcoming Muslims. I think for both of us, it stood so far and apart from anything having to do with Israel. It was on such a deeper, basic human level.”
For his part, about the experience at CBE, Alaskry told The Jewish Week, “I didn’t feel I’m a stranger. I mean I didn’t even think for one moment that I’m Muslim, they are Jewish or this kind of thing. I believe that God is in the center of the universe, and each one of us is looking to him from his own perspective.”
And, understandably, he had strong words of praise for those interpreters and others who, like himself, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops, putting their lives on the line.
“If anybody’s looking for a good cause to fight for, those people are the allies of the United States of America; they sacrifice their lives to protect your soldiers,” he told the crowd at CBE.
Alaskry later elaborated, telling The Jewish Week, “I’d like to tell American people that there are hundreds of interpreters who served America and still stuck out there. Some of them can’t return back home because the terrorists will kill them, some already lost their lives and some lost their family as a result of working with the Americans. We were wearing proudly the American uniform with the American flag on it, and most of us were carrying weapons and fought side by side with our brothers and sisters in the American army. Please do not let these heroes behind. They depend on you.”
When he and his family were languishing back home in Iraq, the scenes that were playing out in airports around the country — protesters by the thousands rallying on behalf of refugees caught by the Trump administration’s travel ban — moved him.
“I was watching on the TV in Baghdad, I was watching those people who were demonstrating and protesting against [the executive order]. It brought tears to my eyes. Every time I was watching it, I was crying. Later people were starting to email me. We are the people who help the American army, the U.S. troops.”
The crowd at CBE broke into applause.
Alaskry told The Jewish Week that “[Friday night] was one of the most beautiful nights in my life, and the people at the synagogue were beautiful people with beautiful spirits. I really loved them, I felt like they were like a part of me, part of my family. I will never forget that night, and I will do it again, of course.”
As of Tuesday, Alaskry and his family were being hosted in Rochester by a “beautiful Jewish family.” He said they would likely stay with them for about a week until they find a more permanent place to live.
And soon, another Shabbat in America will arrive.