This year, as every year, the prayers and melodies of the High Holy Days bring me back to my childhood synagogue. I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.
Who could have anticipated that Aleppo would become known around the world as a place of utter destruction, misery and fear? Five years of relentless state-sponsored violence, of terrorism and war, have created a humanitarian nightmare and the single largest refugee crisis in the world.
In the past year, increased press coverage of the refugee crisis has exposed the world to the dire situation of those who are now fleeing Syria, often to countries that lack the resources to provide much-needed assistance. Smuggled by boat, hidden in the backs of cars, or walking toward safety, more people than ever before are desperately seeking to rebuild a life somewhere where their children will have a chance at a future.
For Jews around the world, the images of refugees hit painfully close to home. They are hauntingly familiar reminders of the hardships that many of our own relatives, friends, and neighbors endured while seeking freedom from tyranny in the past century.
Like myself, many American Jews have complicated family stories of how they arrived in this country, and the courage, bravery, and resilience that it took to start a new life in a new land. However, it is more than just human resilience that defines our journeys; it is also the opportunities available in the country or countries along the way. If the United States had not been a welcoming place, where would our families and communities be today? The opportunity to live relatively free from persecution was critical to our ability to live good lives, to survive, to flourish, and to become part of the remarkable diversity of this country.
The Jewish experience bears witness to the powerful importance of nations keeping their doors open to refugees. Just a few generations after my own Aleppo family was welcomed into a new country, the world is shutting door after door to those who seek safety and an opportunity at life.
We will soon enter the holiest season in the Jewish calendar after a heartbreaking year in which the news was dominated by violence, hatred and xenophobia. This year, our High Holy Day prayers will be laden with the somber realities of the growing refugee crisis.
Will we remember the plight of contemporary refugees desperately knocking at the door as we ask God to open the heavenly gates to our prayers? When we hear the opening words of the beautiful liturgical poems “Et Sha’arei Ratzon” (“As the Gates of Favor Open”), or “Petah Lanu Sha’ar” (“Open the Gates for Us”), will we resolve to take action on their behalf?
This season is a very consequential time for refugees. The need for global leadership is dire. World leaders meeting at the United Nations should be creating a vision for supporting and welcoming refugees. But with winter fast approaching and with far too many refugees stranded in precarious situations, we can’t wait for leaders to affect change; it’s up to all of us to do more.
The Jewish community is proudly taking action across the country. Nearly 200 congregations, including my own, have joined in partnership with HIAS to take action to support refugees. We also can speak with the moral authority that comes from our experience as refugees. With a loud and clear voice, we must call on our leaders to do their part to ensure the basic safety and human rights of refugees worldwide, and to welcome victims of violence to a life of freedom in this country.
The prayers and melodies of the High Holy Days will transport me back to a community that was grateful to have found a place in Argentina. But those prayers and melodies will also function as a reminder and a wake-up call that far too many people are not treated with the compassion and welcome that my own community had. It is time to commit ourselves to acting for the freedom and safety of millions of contemporary refugees. n
Rabbi José Rolando Matalon is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan.
‘The Jewish experience bears witness to the powerful importance of nations keeping their doors open to refugees.’