Like many Ashkenazi Jews, Lisa Mednick Owen might never have been born were it not for HIAS.
Her grandfather was fleeing pogroms in Russia, but, at the Ukrainian border, he didn’t have enough money to bribe the guards and was jailed instead. While in jail, word spread of his situation to a representative of the refugee resettlement agency, who stepped in and got him out of jail and on his way to the U.S.
Now, roughly a century later, Owen is volunteering with HIAS to try to help other refugees on their perilous journeys. She didn’t know of her family’s HIAS history when she started working with HIAS on the refugee crisis, she said in an email, “but, when I heard that story about my grandfather, it reinforced the family connection between my Jewish identity, my personal history and the work that HIAS does now.”
Like many at her Upper West Side, social justice-oriented synagogue, B’nai Jesuhrun, Owen was eager to focus her tikkun olam efforts on refugees, both because of the increasingly dire Syrian refugee crisis and in response to the “anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that was so prominent in this election season,” she said.
Owen teamed up with Marjorie Vandow, another BJ attorney, to recruit other lawyers to help refugees apply for asylum through HIAS.
“There are a lot of people in the community who felt like they wanted to do something, and this is something tangible that they can do,” she said.
In July, BJ created a volunteer committee on the refugee crisis. It soon joined with several other Upper West Side synagogues — including the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Ansche Chesed, Rodeph Sholom and West End Synagogue — to work on the issue as a group.
As the group, now officially called the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee Crisis, began to research how they could best help, Owen and Vandow (at right) saw a particular need that they could fill.
“We noticed a common thread, which was that a lot of the organizations needed pro bono attorneys,” said Vandow.
“We looked at each other,” Owen continued, “and said: ‘There’s got to be a lot of lawyers at BJ.’” A subcommittee was born.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now known simply as HIAS, was founded in 1881 to help Russian and Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms. Today, it has expanded its mission to help refugees of all faiths and ethnicities fleeing persecution from across the globe. Now, the organization is trying to expand its ability to provide direct legal assistance to refugees applying for asylum by creating a formal pro-bono program for attorneys who want to help.
The pilot program began in July with two trainings in the D.C. area. Last Thursday it held its third training, and its first in New York, at BJ.
As attorneys from BJ and beyond settled in at tables in the shul’s lower level function room late last week, HIAS’ managing attorney Liz Sweet said she, Owen and Vandow had planned for an audience of 45. But, as the printed materials and seats ran out, it was clear that more than 45 had come; in all, about 50 lawyers took part in the training.
“There’s incredible interest right now,” Sweet said. “It’s really exciting.”
Vandow and Owen chose to work with HIAS not only because of its century of experience, but also because the organization allowed volunteers to work on one case together, spreading out the work.
“We also felt that was an opportunity to create community [among the volunteer attorneys], so there’s an extra benefit built in,” she added.
In kicking off the training, BJ’s community engagement director, Rabbi Shuli Passow, started with a kavanah, a prayer of intention, that the group would “do our best and our part in moving someone else’s journey forward.”
HIAS’ Merrill Zack told the crowd that the organization’s commitment to advocate for public policy changes “is somewhat unique among the refugee resettlement and advocacy organizations.”
“We know from experience as Jews that there have been many, many times when policies and laws have changed the fate of many of our relatives. It’s been really important to HIAS that we continue to do that work,” she said. “And that’s why you’re all here.”