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Pekudey 5782     March 5, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Refugee Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom

     What kind of a world do we live in where a whole people are forced out of their homes and out of the country of their birth with the choice of leaving or being re-educated to fit in with everyone else? Give up your cultural heritage or get out of our country; what kind a choice is that. The point here is that I am not talking about the Uyghurs of China or the Rohingya of Myanmar, I am talking about the Jews of Spain in 1492 who were told to leave Spain or convert to Christianity. But I could have been talking about China or Myanmar. What happened to Jews in 1492 is happening in our world today.

     Of course, all of this is being eclipsed by the situation in Ukraine. Already over a million people have fled the country in the face of Russian aggression. We can talk about the bravery of the Ukrainian people, but it is estimated that, before this war will be a few weeks old, there will be four million Ukrainians fleeing to Eastern European countries just across the border. These four million people will be added to the eighty-four million people who have been forcibly displaced due to persecution or violence. 26.6 (plus four million Ukrainians) of these are refugees; the rest are displaced in their own countries, having to leave home but not forced across an international border.

     These statistics come from HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was first organized in this country to help settle Jews who fled persecution by the Russian Czars, and who faced discrimination in other Eastern European countries. Over the years, HIAS added to its agenda, welcoming refugees from many other lands. The United States has a long history of welcoming refugees, as Emma Lazarus wrote in her poem “The New Colossus” attached to the Statue of Liberty, that famously ends,

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

     We can go back, far beyond 1883 when Emma Lazarus authored the poem, all the way back to the Torah itself where we are commanded multiple times not to oppress the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. In just six weeks we will gather around our Seder tables and relive the original refugee story of our people who were persecuted in Egypt only because we were different, and we had to force our way out of the country. We struggled in the desert for 40 years as refugees, refused entry to many countries during the journey until we reached the land that God promised to our ancestors. We know what it is like to be a refugee, and we must make sure that we never treat any other human being the way we were treated in Egypt.

     Or, for that matter, how we were treated by the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Ottomans, Christians, Moslems, French, English, Poles, Russians, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Saudis, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Nationalists, Communists, Hungarians, and yes, even the Ukrainians. Do not forget that this country, the United States, refused to accept Jewish refugees on the MS St Louis, sending seven hundred Jews back to Europe where 60% of them would perish in German concentration camps. We have been refugees in history for over two thousand years. We know a thing or two about being a displaced people. Of all the people in the world, when it comes to refugees, we know what we are talking about.

     I have been commenting these days, in the face of the Ukrainian disaster, that, in spite of the substantial number of Jews in Ukraine, there will be no Jewish refugees. None! All the Jews who leave Ukraine will be brought directly to Israel. That is one of the major reasons we support the State of Israel. Whenever Jews, anywhere in the world, are in danger, Israel will give them a safe haven and a refuge. Jews will always be welcome to settle in Israel. The difference between 1939 and 2022 is the fact of a safe and secure Israel that exists in this world.

     I mention this because, the United States has significantly reduced the number of refugees we now allow in this country. In 2019 we resettled almost 108,000 people in this country. In 2020, just the next year, the number was down to just 34,000 individuals. Since 1980 over three million people have been resettled in this country. We have averaged 85,000 refugees accepted here every year. The number of refugees accepted in the last 4 years has only been 30,000 and then 15,000. In 2016, we accepted almost 85,000 refugees, in 2020 only 12,000. The world has resettled just a third of the millions of refugees, and the United States has cut the number of refugees we accept by 80%.

     Why has the U.S. cut the number of refugees if there are tens of millions in need of resettlement? There are lots of fears about refugees. That they will take aways jobs. That they will use up welfare benefits. That refugees can be a security threat to the United States. This is why it can take up to two years for a refugee to be cleared by Homeland Security. And yet…. According to HIAS, many national security experts insist that not only are refugees NOT a security risk, they are a vital part of our national security interests, they are an important security tool, and they play a part in keeping our troops safe around the world.

     Statistics tell us that, on average, 82% of the refugees we bring to this country participate in our labor force. They are twice as likely as native born Americans to hold jobs in the service sector. A 2017 study showed that over a span of 10 years, refugees contributed $63 billion in taxes more than what our government paid to resettle them. Industries like hospitality and meat packing rely heavily on refugee workers. The fact that we have so few people coming to this country is why there is so much difficulty finding workers for meat processing, restaurant cooks and wait staff, and health aides. It is also putting a strain on the work force in rural areas.

      Israel accepts plenty of refugees and their economy is always booming. Some of our best years of economic growth were the years where we accepted the most refugees. Right now, there are Afghan refugees still waiting to be processed to be resettled. Families that endangered their lives to save the lives of American soldiers are still waiting for permission to find a new home.

     What are we supposed to do? How can we help? The best way we can help today is to speak up on behalf of refugees. Speak out against friends and family who might believe that refugees are the problem, not a solution. Write to federal and state lawmakers to help ease the way for refugees to come to this country and to this state. We need to state our concern for refugees on our social media pages, spreading the information about how important refugees can be to our country and to our economy. HIAS has remote volunteering possibilities to keep us all safe during this time of COVID. One can sign up on the HIAS website. As I was writing, the United States has given protective status to Ukrainians already in this country. That is a start. Just this week a million Ukrainian refugees entered the bordering countries to Ukraine with nothing but the clothing on their backs, with children and elderly adults among them. They need a warm place to sleep, warm food to eat and a warm welcome to a place they can call home until the fighting in their country ceases.

      The Masorti Foundation and our local Federation are collecting funds to help Ukrainian Jews leave their country and arrive in Israel. Donations are needed as well as donations to HIAS. We cannot go and fight for Ukraine to push the Russians out of their country, but we can support those displaced by that war. We Jews who have been displaced so many times in history, must understand what it means to be a displaced stranger and to help welcome these strangers to our country. It is the Jewish thing to do.

     May God end this horrendous war in Ukraine that is killing so many soldiers and civilians. And may peace help bring back those who have fled for their lives. But for those who make their homes in new countries and new cities, may they find the success they need and the peace they crave as we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783