The Jewish response to the global refugee crisis


Last month, a photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean while seeking safety with his family, put a sudden spotlight on the Syrian refugee crisis. This single photograph activated a rapid and massive response, acting as a catalyst for the American Jewish community to rally around the cause.

Now, we must continue to prioritize resolving this global crisis by advocating for stronger U.S. leadership.

The history and experience of American Jews means that the plight of the Syrians, and refugees everywhere, resonates for us. While most certainly a global crisis, assisting refugees is a very Jewish issue, and many significant voices in the Jewish community are stepping up to demand that we not turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us. We know what it means to be strangers in a strange land.

We also know the impact we can have when we come together to speak out for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

It was not long ago that the American Jewish community galvanized around the resettlement of Soviet Jewry following the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulting in the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many of us still remember the way congregations and communities came together to show our support and to pressure lawmakers to respond quickly to ensure our European brothers and sisters could find safety. Increasingly, we are seeing a heightened level of recognition from the American Jewish community that our government can do more to alleviate the Syrian crisis.

What makes this case unique, however, is that for the first time in Jewish history, our community is mobilizing in force to help refugees — not because they are Jewish, but because we are. The growing response currently underway in the Jewish community, from rabbis to lay leaders, organizational heads to members of our local congregations, reflects an appreciation for this major moment in our history.

Synagogues across the country used the High Holidays as an opportunity to focus on the current crisis. Thousands have already joined the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s call to the president urging the United States to step up its leadership by resettling at least 100,000 Syrian refugees on top of the 70,000 refugees resettled annually.

The stories of Syrian refugees are only one piece of what is actually a global refugee crisis — the largest since the conclusion of World War II.  Worldwide, there are more than 60 million refugees and displaced persons, from places as diverse as Sudan, Iraq, Colombia, Somalia and Ukraine. It is time for our community to mobilize and meet the needs of the millions of refugees and asylum seekers displaced in the world today, and that starts with advocating for the United States to raise the resettlement ceiling.

Raising the resettlement limit to reflect the urgency of the global crisis will allow Syrians individuals and families to start new lives in safety and freedom, as so many others have before them. And for the refugees currently being resettled in the United States, we can and must do more to create a welcoming environment in our communities and cities.

This past weekend, I spoke about the global refugee crisis in Washington at Temple Micah and Adas Israel, and was joined on the bima by Winnie Gacheru, director of psychosocial services for HIAS Kenya.

As an expert on refugees, she explained what HIAS has learned about addressing the long-term mental health needs of refugees through many years of counseling and direct service. No matter where they wind up, all refugees face the challenge of rebuilding their lives in a new place, providing for their families, and overcoming the trauma that forced them to leave in the first place. An effective response to the refugee crisis must be multi-faceted, as resettlement will never be available for the vast majority of refugees.

In the past weeks, the energy and resolve in the Jewish community to help and protect refugees has been a source of inspiration and hope. The Torah tells us to “love the stranger” 36 times. These words are deeply embedded in the psyche of American Jews, and for that reason, I know that the community will continue to seek ways to translate its compassion and empathy for contemporary refugees into meaningful action.

Not because they are Jewish, but because we are.

Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.  

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  1. Please tell me how I can help relocate needy refugees in Israel.
    I know Israel can help these refugees learn how to adjust to life in Israel, since so many other people have found new lives in Israel after living in foreign lands.


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