Jews gather at rallies across U.S. urging support for refugees

Elianna Kan, left, said the fact that her family came to the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union motivated her to attend the New York City rally with her friends Will Hunt and Sarah Rosen.
Photo by Josefin Dolsten

NEW YORK — A century ago, Barnett Levine was greeted by the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty as he arrived in the United States, having fled anti-Semitism and pogroms in his native Poland.

On Sunday, his grandson saw those same sights when he joined about 700 others in this city’s Battery Park at a rally protesting President Donald Trump’s executive order banning all refugees from the country for 120 days.

“I am the grandchild of four immigrants who came here when the gates of the United States were wide open and they made a life here,” said Harold Levine, a 60-year-old marketing consultant. “I think that it is the duty of the Jewish community to pay this forward to other immigrants who are trying to come to the United States.”

The rally was organized by HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, part of an initiative by the immigrant resettlement group called the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.

The president issued his order last month, which also banned citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. On Feb. 9, a federal appeals court ruling upheld a stay on the ban, a move praised by many Jewish groups, including HIAS.

Thousands attended rallies that were part of the HIAS initiative in Boston, Washington and other major cities. The demonstrations had more than 20 co-sponsors, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

In Washington on Saturday, HIAS sponsored a Havdalah service at Washington Hebrew Congregation, co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Speakers included area rabbis and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, who urged the 600 people in attendance to prepare to peacefully resist the ban.

“Some of you may have to engage in acts of civil disobedience. Some of you may have to take in a Syrian family because somebody is looking house to house,” he said. “Some of you may have to break the law.”

“Never again,” he said, invoking a phrase associated with the Holocaust. To which the audience responded, “Never again.”

Linda Goodman Zebooker came to the Washington demonstration dressed as the Statue of Liberty to express her support for welcoming the stranger.

“This administration is what we’ve been taught to fight against our whole lives,” she said. “It’s a danger to everything we know about the world. Our parents threw everything, including kitchen sinks, at Hitler’s regime. We would not be here otherwise.”

Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, said the rallies were a rare moment of joining together in support of refugees.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since I got my start [with HIAS] in 1989, which was at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement,” he said. “This is a galvanizing moment like that, but the difference is that then we were standing up for Jews, and now we are standing up as Jews.”

At the New York rally, participants braved icy wind, hail and rain to join in chants of “When refugees are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back” and “Never again means never again for everyone” between speeches by rabbis and clergy members, politicians and leaders of Jewish groups. Among the speakers were Mayor Bill de Blasio; Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, and Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee.

In Boston, speakers at a rally with several hundred participants included City Councilor Josh Zakim, whose father, the late Lenny Zakim, was the longtime director of the New England Anti-Defamation League; Imam Faisal Khan, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Wayland, and Fred Manasse, a child Holocaust survivor who was brought to the United States by HIAS.

Speeches — even those given by non-Jewish speakers — were peppered with references to Jewish history and traditions.

“In this city we believe we can live in harmony,” de Blasio said in New York.” It’s not perfect, but we believe we can do something that the whole world is struggling to do, that we can all be together … people of all religions and backgrounds, that is what we’re fighting for — doesn’t that fit beautifully the profound Jewish concept of tikkun olam, of healing the world?”

Ellison, who said that the rally was “one of the main reasons” for his visit to New York, talked in his speech about the SS St. Louis, a ship with 900 Jewish refugees from Germany that tried to enter the United States and other countries but was turned away. He called the incident “a shameful time in our country.”

Jewish ritual featured prominently. At one point during the New York rally, representatives of 10 of the co-sponsoring groups went on stage and tore pieces of cloth, mimicking a Jewish ritual in which mourners rend their clothing. The tearing was done to remind attendees of refugees who had died before being able to reach safety, as well as those who are now facing dangerous circumstances.

In addition to co-sponsoring the New York event, the ADL on Sunday also launched a campaign to rally opposition to Trump’s executive order urging people to share on social media their family stories of coming to the U.S. and tagging posts with #ThisIsARefugee.

“We remember that we were once strangers, too, that Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and oppression during the Holocaust were often denied entry with claims eerily similar to some of the claims that are being made today to deny entrance to refugees, and we think that’s wrong,” Greenblatt said  phone before the rally.

WJW Political Reporter Dan Schere and JTA correspondent Penny Schwartz contributed to this article.

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