‘We Have Experienced Only Kindness’
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‘We Have Experienced Only Kindness’

As Trump’s immigration policy continues to roil the country, these Westchester synagogues are at the forefront of resettling Muslims from the Middle East.

  • An Afghan feast: For members of Beth Am Shalom, when it comes to helping refugees, “It’s easy to give money. Time is more difficult than money,” says Laura Solomon, the effort’s point person.
Courtesy of Bonnie Jill Emanuel
    An Afghan feast: For members of Beth Am Shalom, when it comes to helping refugees, “It’s easy to give money. Time is more difficult than money,” says Laura Solomon, the effort’s point person. Courtesy of Bonnie Jill Emanuel
  • An Afghan refugee cooks her country’s delicacies with members of Beth Am Shalom in White Plains. Bonnie Jill Emanuel
    An Afghan refugee cooks her country’s delicacies with members of Beth Am Shalom in White Plains. Bonnie Jill Emanuel

In her third-floor apartment in a modest brick building in downtown White Plains, a block from the city’s 35-story Trump Tower, Fatima, a recent refugee from Afghanistan, pours a cup of green leaf tea for a U.S. visitor one recent afternoon.

She is 20-ish and petite, a fashionable beige hijab covers her head. As sunlight streams through a gauzy linen window curtain her family had brought from its Afghani home, Fatima tells a reporter about the reaction that her Sunni Muslim friends expressed when she informed them that her family would be coming to the United States under Jewish auspices.

HIAS, the Jewish immigrant aid agency, coordinated the resettlement of Fatima’s family last year — and a pair of Jewish congregations in White Plains had assumed financial responsibility for the family’s first year here.

Watch out for the Jews, Fatima’s friends warned her — they will try to convert you to their religion. That’s what her Muslim friends had learned in the Afghani media, she says.

After nine months in White Plains, she has learned otherwise.

“Our experience is totally different,” Fatima says through an interpreter, a fellow émigré from Afghanistan, whose absorption was aided by the nearby Jewish Community Center of Harrison. “We have experienced only kindness.”

Stara, the translator, tells a similar story. “I share my story [about being aided by Jews] with my people,” Muslim friends in the U.S. and back in Afghanistan. “They can’t believe it.”

This year, when it comes to immigration, the country’s gaze has been fixed intently on the southern border, with the Trump administration moving aggressively to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. (A federal judge this week blocked the administration’s latest action to limit the number of asylum seekers.) But far less attention has been paid to refugees like Fatima from Muslim and Arab countries and the Jewish community’s considerable  follow-up efforts to smooth their fraught transitions. They were the focus of attention at the start of Trump’s presidency as he sought to put in place what came to be labeled a “Muslim ban.”

And while the flow of refugees admitted to the U.S., particularly from Syria, has slowed dramatically in the last three years, “the interest of congregations [in taking part in resettlement activities] is increasing … because of the public attention” on the general issue of immigration, said Isabel Burton, HIAS’ senior director of community engagement initiatives.

Courtesy of Bonnie Jill Emanuel

Fatima’s experience is common among refugees from Muslim and Arab countries who have been welcomed by the Jewish community in the last few years. (Her family came here as part of the State Department’s Special Immigrants Visa program for people — in this case, her husband — who had worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and faced threats in their homeland.)

Hundreds of congregations in the U.S. and Canada are actively working to help resettle refugees — most coming to this country in the last two years are not Muslim — and aid their integration by receiving training from HIAS and the agency’s local affiliates. They have played a role in resettling “easily hundreds” of people from Muslim and Arab backgrounds in the last three years, mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, Burton said. And with the Trump administration’s recent moves on immigration — for instance, looking to slash refugee admissions to zero next year — the subject is likely to find its way into many rabbis’ sermons when Jews gather in synagogues across the country later this month for the High Holy Days.

HIAS, in fact, is urging rabbis to take it up. “We will call on rabbis to use the [holiday period] to raise a moral voice for rights and the human dignity of those who seek safety in our country,” Burton said.

“Reaching out to immigrants, who seem to be this year’s oppressed and persecuted, reassures us that there are still ways to preserve what we cherish about the United States – and about being Jewish,” says Rabbi Billy Dreskin of the Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, which partnered with that city’s Bet Am Shalom to resettle Fatima’s family. “Our tradition teaches us to care,” he said.

That sense of caring was sparked, many congregations say, by the heartbreaking image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, member of a refugee family from Syria, whose body had washed ashore in Turkey.

“It’s easy to give money” to a worthy cause such as refugee resettlement,” said Laura Solomon, chair of Tikkun Olam Chevra of Bet Am Shalom in Westchester. “Time is more difficult than money.”

And synagogues around the country have invested significant amounts of time in what is by some measures a remarkable effort.

The resettlement activities of synagogues, as outlined by HIAS and the eight other U.S. resettlement agencies that work with the State Department to place refugees throughout the country, are all-inclusive.

Participating congregations are responsible for supporting the immigrants for their first year in their new communities (they have to guarantee tens of thousands of dollars up front). The works starts with synagogue members meeting refugee families at the airport and providing a culturally appropriate meal within a few hours. Finding an apartment and stocking it with food, clothing and furniture is next. Then there is helping to arrange employment and prepare the adults for interviews, and finding schools and summer camps for the kids. An array of responsibilities follow: advising the refugees on applying for government benefits; putting them in touch with nearby mosques and other refugees; arranging for English-language lessons; driving them to appointments; and taking the children to the circus or museums.

“Everything from emergency dental care … to teaching the kids how to ice skate and play hockey,” Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom in Vancouver, which has helped resettle three refugee families, told The Jewish Week.

Until the newcomers master English, or have an interpreter available, the synagogue volunteers communicate via Google Translator and “lots of hand gestures,” said Shoshana Akabas, a coordinator of the refugee assistance project at  B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.

All of the help afforded to “welcome the stranger,” as Jewish tradition commands, “is an important tenet of Judaism,” said Rachel Teichman, co-chair of the refugee resettlement committee at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, which nine months ago resettled an Afghani family in partnership with the city’s Interfaith Ministries organization.

And the efforts of the Jewish community to welcome Muslim refugees have, to a small degree, helped to improve relations between Jews and Muslim in this country,.

Raahima Shoaib, communications and marketing manager of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, calls these Jewish resettlement programs “extremely important … nothing short of amazing work. Efforts like these can only improve our relationships.”

“The Jewish community has always been a huge part of any interfaith effort in America. They have supported the Muslim community whenever we have needed,” Shoaib said in an email interview.

An Afghan feast: For members of Beth Am Shalom, when it comes to helping refugees, “It’s easy to give money. Time is more difficult than money,” says Laura Solomon, the effort’s point person.
Courtesy of Bonnie Jill Emanuel

Maital Friedman, co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, stressed the cross-religious benefits of such resettlement work. “These deep and personal connections have the opportunity to bridge our communities and shatter stereotypes,” she said.

Such work, however, has faced some opposition in the Jewish community, given 9/11. Some on the Jewish right have voiced the very real fear that terrorists may sneak into the U.S. in the guise of refugees, citing the volatile refugee situation in much of Europe, especially in Germany.

Refugee resettlement advocates point to a vigorous vetting process here. “Refugees are subjected to far more scrutiny than any other group entering the United States,” according to a HIAS information sheet. “The verification process for refugees includes multiple security screenings and detailed in-person interviews by the Department of Homeland Security … the vetting process typically takes 18-24 months.”

Since the Trump administration’s 2017 executive order, which indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees as well as those from several other majority-Muslim countries — the number of Muslim refugees admitted into this country has plummeted, from 6,557 in fiscal year 2017 to 286 in 2019.

Resettlement volunteers say most members of the Jewish community and wider community have been supportive of the congregations’ resettlement programs. “We have not received any criticism from any individuals or groups — at least not to our faces,” said Tamara Duker Freuman, social action chairperson at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, which is an active participant in the Tristate Jewish Network for Refugee Support.

Rabbi Moskovitz says about 5 percent of his Vancouver congregation has raised objections to Temple Sholom’s resettlement program. “It was also opposed by a few in the larger Jewish community.”

In an indication of how emotional the issue can get, the rabbi said, “I was spat on by a very angry man at the JCC who thought I was an ‘Arab lover’ and ‘selling out the Jewish people and Israel.’”

Resettlement efforts across the U.S. are largely a suburban or small-size-city phenomenon; they involve several congregations in Connecticut and central New Jersey.

While Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side last summer resettled a refugee family from Pakistan, and a coalition of three Brooklyn congregations — Beth Elohim, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and Kane Street Synagogue — are supporting an asylum-seeking family from Chad, rents in New York City have made finding apartments virtually prohibitive.

Congregations like the Central Synagogue, on the East Side, have financially supported the resettlement work of Solel Congregation in Mississauga, Canada; the Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun, together with a nearby church, has concentrated on finding jobs for refugees. The effort, called the Refugee Employment Partnership, has helped land jobs for 50 new Americans, two-thirds from Muslim-majority countries. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Midtown runs clinics for immigration lawyers.

Synagogues’ responsibilities typically do not end when the refugee family’s first year does, and when the newcomers are supposed to be self-sufficient. “It takes a lot of energy,” says Susan Davis, co-chair of Kol Ami’s resettlement program.

“We continue to be in [a] relationship with the family and continue to tutor their children through their school,” says Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Chicago’s Temple Sholom, which supported an Afghan family in 2016.

Around the corner from Fatima’s family in White Plains live the Ahmadis, part of Syria’s Kurdish minority. They were resettled in White Plains by the city’s Congregation Kol Ami and Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El.

The Ahmadis left Aleppo in 2017, said Zaida (not her real name), because of the constant fighting in the country’s ongoing civil war. They lived on the outskirts of the city, which came under constant shelling. “It was a war. The building always shook. We were scared,” Zaida said.

Fatima and the Ahmadis were resettled through HIAS’ Host Organization Model of Engagement (HOME) initiative, which was developed to respond to a high level of interest of Westchester’s Jewish community in refugee resettlement. HOME enables organizations interested in sponsoring a refugee family’s resettlement to handle an array of major responsibilities.

According to HIAS, participants in HOME have helped resettle one family from Syria, one from Iraq, five from Afghanistan, a single Afghani refugee and two sisters from the Central African Republic, without taking full responsibility for all of a refugee family’s needs for a year.

Like most Arab and Muslim refugees, Zaida had learned little at home about Israel, and what she learned was negative. Now she watches news on the apartment’s cable TV set, and says she has “no problem with Israel. I would like to go there [as a tourist] one day.”

A skilled sewer, she has established a thriving seamstress business in the family’s apartment, working on a row of sewing machines in a bedroom, and her husband works in a 3D-printing factory in Tuckahoe, eight miles away.

Near the front door of her apartment, Zaida has stowed a prayer rug, on which she bows in front of a plaque that bears Koranic verses, for Muslim prayers every day.

The participating congregations’ resettlement activities have given the Ahmadis hope for their future, Zaida said — a better future than many people in her homeland face.

News reports from Syria, photographs of Syrians who still live in danger, remind her of the life she left behind, she said, shaking her head. “I feel bad. I feel sad. I was one of them.”

Back at Fatima’s apartment, she is explaining that she didn’t learn anything about Jews or Judaism growing up in Afghanistan. “Ne, ne,” she says — no, no.

So far, the only Jews she has met in White Plains are those who have aided and befriended her family, and who have introduced her to the city’s small Muslim population; there is a small mosque, where her husband, who works as a stocker in Target, regularly worships, in a nearby mall.

In her family’s apartment, the only possessions from their homeland that they were able to bring in a few suitcases are some clothing, the window curtains and some teacups. When the Jewish volunteers come, Fatima offers them some home-baked goodies. Today, a chocolate cake.

The Jewish community has reached out “more than we could ever imagine,” she said. “We don’t know how to say thank you. We are very happy.” 

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