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Remaining True to Refugee Welcome and Resettlement

Remaining True to Refugee Welcome and Resettlement

Am Shalom congregants await arriving Syrian family

In 22 years of being a rabbi, I don't think I've ever been as proud of a congregation as I was when 22 representatives of Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, gathered at O'Hare International Airport to welcome our family as they arrived from Syria. Dozens more were part of the mentoring, tutoring, clothing, furniture, food, fundraising, and outreach teams – and have been working for months to make sure their arrival and integration into our community would be smooth and heartfelt.

Never did we expect that we would be at the epicenter of a national storm. But with their arrival less than one hour before an executive order changed our country’s longstanding tradition of refugee welcome and resettlement, that’s exactly what happened.

Nonetheless, Am Shalom members remained true to that spirit.

Upon the family's arrival, our members showered them with flowers, toys, and well wishes. As we walked to the van in the parking structure, the two children stood amazed, listening to the street performers play music in the tunnels. I reached into my pocket, handed each of them a quarter, and threw mine into the case. With smiles, they followed my lead. I have always taught that even those who receive tzedakah are also commanded to give it, but never have I seen it happen in such a simple and gentle way. Out of concern and security for the family, and in compliance with a request from Refugee One, our partner organization and Illinois’ largest resettlement agency, we are not posting pictures or publishing their names. I am hopeful that the time will come soon when we can release pictures of the beautiful children enjoying their new room – and all the warmth and love that so many have showered upon them. Indeed, the outpouring of support has been remarkable. With hope undimmed, we still plan to fulfill the rest of our commitment, bringing our second family here as soon as we can. 

To date, we have raised almost $16,000 and collected more than 300 items to set up households for our two families. We also have established a refugee resettlement fund through Am Shalom to assist in the effort when it resumes. 

As Jews, we are aware that love and care for the stranger is a mitzvah, mentioned frequently in the Torah -- 36 times to be exact.  We know our ultimate challenge and we have not forgotten our charge and responsibility: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

I will close with several emails I have received in response to our work from people I do not know: 

From Patty, who wrote with immeasurable gratitude: “The photo of members of your congregation welcoming Syrian refugees at O'Hare was the single glimmer of hope I felt on this shameful day for our country. Thank you for setting an example of kindness, compassion and courage for all of us, and please continue to fight for those who need our help.”

“Rabbi, I read the story of the generous support your congregation gave to a new Syrian family. As a Muslim African-American woman, this kind act of humanity that you've shown has given me more hope than I've had in the last few days. Thank you so much and may The Creator of us all continue to bless each and every one of you! Shalom!”

“I'm writing to thank you for your generous welcoming and support of Syrian refugees. It has been such a dark week for our country, and it is hard not to despair. As an Arab-American, it's also easy to feel gravely unwelcome. Reading about your efforts in the New York Times today gave me a much-needed jolt of hope and even joy. For that, I thank you and send you all my love from Brooklyn,”

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein, the senior rabbi of Am Shalom Congregation in Glencoe, IL, is the author of For the Love of Being Jewish and For the Love of Israel.

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