Refugee plans on hold at D.C. synagogues

Linda Goodman Zebooker dressed as Lady Liberty to express her support for welcoming the stranger at a service at Washington Hebrew Congregation. Photo by Dan Schere

The dispute between the White House and the federal courts over whether refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries may travel to the United States has slowed the plans of at least three Washington synagogues to welcome refugee families.

Adas Israel Congregation, Tifereth Israel Congregation and Temple Sinai have had plans in the works to aid refugees, either by sponsoring a family or providing essential living services.

The three synagogues in the District of Columbia are working with Lutheran Social Services as part of its Become a Good Neighbor refugee resettlement program. Lutheran Social Services works with resettlement agencies that work directly with the State Department to determine which immigrant cases have been vetted.

Altogether, there are 30 houses of worship in the city involved in assisting refugees, said Autumn Orme, of Lutheran Social Services.

The lingering uncertainty over the fate of Trump’s executive action, which federal Judge James Robart blocked Feb. 4, has left many of these congregations wondering when or if they will be matched with a family, Orme said.

Dan Aladjem, who chairs Adas Israel Congregation’s refugee response team, said more than 100 congregants have been involved in the preparations for sponsoring a family. He said that the congregation began coordinating last fall — months before Trump’s inauguration — with Lutheran Social Services, and were hoping to get a family soon.

He said the congregation was told last month that Adas Israel was between fifth and 10th in line for a family and had been scheduled to receive a family this month, but congregants don’t know if that still holds, given the chaos kicked off by Trump’s executive order barring refugees.

“It’s still our hope we will be able to, but it’s still unknown,” he said.

But Adas Israel’s team did respond last month, when it learned from Lutheran Social Services that a family from Iraq was scheduled to arrive in Riverdale the following Friday. The Adas members would need to prepare an empty apartment for a family of three.

“It was just kind of an urgent situation,” said congregant Amy Golen.

She and team member Liana Brooks-Rubin collected furniture, cleaning supplies, pots, pans and linens from congregants. What they couldn’t collect, they bought.

“We sent out a message to people and we had a specific list of what we needed,” Golen said.  “People were emailing, ‘I have couches,’ ‘I have dishes,’ ‘I have a rug.’”

The family arrived Jan. 20 to a fully furnished apartment and a welcome sign written in Arabic.

Similar efforts have been underway at Temple Sinai, which has raised about $40,000 to help cover a refugee family of four’s living expenses for a year.

Rabbi Jonathan Roos said more than 30 congregants have offered to help with the resettlement project. He said there has been a sense of “fear and confusion” among synagogue members since Trump was elected.

Their plans for helping resettle a refugee family temporarily are on hold because of Trump’s executive order regarding refugees and the legal battles over it, Roos said.

Temple Sinai has not been assigned a refugee family, so the congregants are looking at how to assist undocumented newcomers to the area. A “rapid response team” that will include lawyers with knowledge of the immigration system, is being formed. Roos said such a group could hold “know your rights” seminars for immigrants.

Roos said his congregation includes a few native Spanish-speakers who might help as interpreters at the seminars.

“Statistically and anecdotally, people who have some form of legal representation have a decreased chance of being deported,” he said.

Last weekend, Tifereth Israel Congregation took its first step to help a resettled Syrian refugee family in Riverdale. The family arrived in the United States on Sept. 1 from Jordan, where they lived after fleeing Homs, Syria, four years ago, said Tifereth Israel member Janet Nesse, who visited the family in their new home.

She said the father is working in a bakery, while the mother stays at home. Their four children attend public school in Prince George’s County.

“They had never spoken one single word of English or met someone who spoke in English until they got off the plane,” Nesse said. Congregants, she said, may be able to help the parents learn English.

Members have offered to drive the family to medical appointments and help them buy a computer.

“Once they get a computer they will have access to English programs,” Nesse said.

Tifereth Israel Rabbi Ethan Seidel said a congregant comes up to him every day and asks what he or she can do to help refugees.

He said Tifereth Israel is looking into how to become a sanctuary synagogue and host a refugee family in its building. It would involve setting up an apartment inside the synagogue, with a shower, food and other necessities.

The District of Columbia is considered a sanctuary city, but Trump has asked the Department of Homeland Security to penalize sanctuary cities by restricting their federal funds.

Ari Ne’eman, a member of Tifereth Israel’s board of directors, said the congregation is just beginning to look at what is involved in becoming a sanctuary synagogue. The purpose, he said, is to create a space that is less likely to be discovered by deportation officers.

Ne’eman said so far about six people have participated in early discussions, and meetings are planned for the next several weeks.

“Like much of the country, I think we feel a tremendous concern for the political situation and we feel a desire to help in any way that we can,” he said.

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