By now the haunting vision of the dead 3-year-old Syrian boy — Aylan Kurdi — on a Turkish beach is iconic. It is a horrifyingly painful representation of the plight of the world’s latest wave of refugees, but one in a year with more forced expatriates than any point since World War II’s bloody end.
Upon seeing the photograph, as human beings we responded with horror in our hearts. As Jews, we wrung our hands. What to do? We do, of course, have a never-ceasing agenda. And a handful of groups — such as HIAS and interfaith groups with Jews — are helping.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has noted that the country “is not indifferent to human tragedy.” Yet, he added, “Israel is a very small country. It has no demographic depth and has no geographic breadth. We must protect our borders against illegal immigrants and against the perpetrators of terrorism. We cannot allow Israel to be flooded with infiltrators.”
He is backed by his electorate. Polls this week showed 11 percent of the nation didn’t want the refugees; 80 percent said the country has no role in the global crisis.
But in America we can do a great deal — and it won’t cost much time or money. And it might help in the endless campaign to invigorate our younger generation, the one that sees American Jewish life and structures as aging in place. Indeed, a hearty number of younger Jews, those who avoid synagogues and educational opportunities, are far from bereft of universalistic Jewish values.
So this is the moment to strike.
What does that mean? Could Jewish federations — or groups of smaller ones — each sponsor at least one refugee family? It does not mean bringing them to this country (the way we brought hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews here in my youth). Rather, it means sponsoring them in Europe, partnering with our Jewish communities there. Think of teaming up here with Hillels, Moishe Houses and other Jewish operations that on a micro-level have built deep personal relationships with Jews of the younger generation.
And let’s be crass for a moment: What a wonderful opportunity for hasbarah (positive publicity).
Rather than pontificate to urge others to action, I am willing to serve on a committee or find other ways to help.
Why do I say this? Because as a teenager I remember being so moved by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s reaching out to 300 Vietnamese refugees driven from their country — “the boat people.” As a former Polish refugee, while not personally religious, Begin had a deep respect for Jewish tradition. As he put it: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War … traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused … Therefore it was natural … to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”
In short, he showed us that one could take Jewish values and apply them to the planet. I was hooked. So it wasn’t just Soviet Jewish refugees I was to help, but I was to speak out — as the Good Book tells us — for the stranger in a strange land because once that was me. I also realized that with equal importance I must embrace one of my favorite Talmudic teachings. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not ours to finish the task of creation. Neither is it to desist from it.”
Besides, it’s the Jewish thing to do.
The writer is a former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and an area educator.