Evelyn Ganzglass, a member of Bethesda Jewish Congregation, has been working with an interfaith group for the past six years to help a refugee family establish itself in Washington. Her congregation has a partnership with Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque, and they have provided economic, educational and medical support to the family.
What is the refugee project and when did you start?
Bethesda Jewish Congregation has been a spiritual partner sharing sacred space with Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church for more than 50 years so we have a long history of working together on social action initiatives. We’ve also been associated with the Idara-e-Jaferia mosque for about 10 years and it was just natural for us to collaborate with them on the refugee project.
We decided that we really wanted to work with refugees because there was a growing awareness of the refugee crisis and that motivated us to take action. We worked with Lutheran Social Services, which has a well-established partnership program with religious institutions. As part of LSS’s program, congregations commit to providing different levels of support and then they refer a family to you. We were assigned a refugee family from Afghanistan that was able to enter the country on a Special Immigrant Visa.
For the first year, we committed to subsidizing the family’s rent on a declining basis. So we started with 100 percent and gradually went down to zero. We helped them find and set up an apartment. We helped them with tutoring, finding a job, getting job training and all kinds of other things. After supporting the initial family, we agreed to work with other members of the family who arrived later, also as refugees. We were more experienced by that time.
What else did you do to support the refugee family?
Lots of people from the church, the mosque and the synagogue contributed money that enabled us to provide this support. There were people from the three congregations who helped set up the apartment and provide other support. Now we’re down to probably eight or 10 people who are sustaining the effort.
There was a much bigger push at the beginning. Lots of people donated furniture and people in all three congregations have provided professional services, for example, free dental care and medical care, and have helped in different ways. But at this point we’re mostly mentors. They’re on their own, working and going to school, but we’re still in touch and get phone calls and talk to them. There’s still some tutoring that goes on and we just had a picnic with them. So it’s just friendship at this point.
What is the goal of this project?
It’s really hard being working poor in the United States. It’s really complicated just to make ends meet, to figure out what jobs to get and where to go. Luckily, we have experts in all of these congregations who really know Medicaid, who know food stamps, who are lawyers, who are doctors and who have networks. So we’re just using our various networks and expertise to help this family figure out how to make it, move in and move along. That’s really what this is all about.
How does this work connect to your Jewish identity?
My parents were Jewish refugees who fled to the United States from Austria during World War II. For me this is about welcoming strangers and finding our common humanity different faith traditions.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Well, it started out as trying to help people assimilate and form personal relationships, but this has evolved in long-term friendships. Before the pandemic, they came to our house for Thanksgiving. Other families have invited them to different things; they invite us. So it’s just an extended family.
Well meaning, but misguided. The immigrant groups from antisemitic, Muslim countries end up voting for people like Rashida Tlaib and Ihlan Omar who vote against aid to Israel and who are helping to normalize anti-Semitic views in this country. The analogy to refugees escaping the Holocaust is not apt. Eucumenical efforts have been ineffective in preventing the growing antisemitism on the Right, Left and in the Islamic community. The Jewish leadership needs a paradigm shift away from such alliances. We need to use our resources to protect the Jewish community. The old model, as represented by this story, has failed utterly.