Congregation Dor Hadash remains committed to helping refugees
“The opportunity to really work with an individual family to help them resettle was really exciting to a lot of people."
Four years after the massacre at the Tree of Life building, Congregation Dor Hadash remains steadfast in its commitment to welcoming the stranger.
The congregation continues to participate in Refugee Shabbat, a national initiative of HIAS. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, it was widely reported that the gunman targeted Dor Hadash because of its participation in that program.
If the accused murderer’s intent was to break the resolve of the congregation, he failed.
“If anything, we’ve doubled down,” said Rich Weinberg, head of Dor Hadash’s social action committee.
As proof of that commitment, earlier this year Dor Hadash became one of several congregations working closely with Jewish Family and Community Services in its Community Sponsorship Program, a collaborative effort to support refugees.
The congregation, Weinberg explained, has long worked with JFCS. In fact, it was during an event honoring Leslie Aizenman, JFCS’ former director of refugee programs, that Dor Hadash learned about the Community Sponsorship Program being developed at the time.
In addition to participating in the annual Refugee Shabbat, Weinberg said, Dor Hadash was eager to find more tangible ways to help the immigrant community.
“The opportunity to really work with an individual family to help them resettle was really exciting to a lot of people, and it really generated a great deal of interest on the part of members of the congregation,” he said.
More than 30 congregation families, totaling more than 40 volunteers, have received over 45 hours of training from JFCS and have obtained the clearances needed to work with families.
The preparation paid off in mid-September when a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived from Zambia, where they lived for many years, Weinberg said.
The volunteers helped the family find affordable housing in the city, furnish their new home, stock their pantry and obtain cleaning supplies.
“We tried to think of everything a family would need when they come and make it nice for them on their first day when they arrive,” said Eve Wider, past social action committee chair who serves as part of the coordinating committee with Weinberg and other volunteers.
The congregation also picked the family up from the airport when they arrived and provided dinner on their first night in Pittsburgh.
Dor Hadash has made a yearlong commitment to the family and continues to assist as they adjust to life in America. That assistance has included helping the family with everything from getting on the food stamp program to making sure they know how appliances work and how to use the bus. Volunteers have taken the family to medical appointments and gone on walks in local parks, Wider said.
“We’ve been actively involved in helping them navigate this whole new culture,” Weinberg said, “with the aim of helping them as rapidly as possible become self-sufficient, employed, able to manage their money and manage a budget.”
The Refugee Community Sponsor Program has three goals, according to JFCS Refugee Sponsor Coordinator Alina Harbourne: encourage the community to become more involved in welcoming refugees and provide support; help communities be more welcoming and accepting of diversity; and help resettlement agencies like JFCS increase their capacity to support their refugee clients.
Harbourne said that any organization or group of individuals can become sponsors, but they must go through the requisite training and obtain clearances.
And while there are some financial obligations required, Harbourne said that the focus is more on the support that the volunteers can give providing core services that refugees require to start a new life.
“We don’t want the financial side to stop any group from wanting to help out,” Harbourne said. “That being said, when refugees arrive, they receive very little financial support from the U.S. government and if sponsorship groups are able to do some fundraising, it really helps not only for the financial security of the family they’re supporting, but it can also help things like the cost of using an interpreter to help communicate with the family.”
Immigrants and refugees are under a lot of pressure to become self-sufficient within their first 90 days, she noted.
“It’s a lot of stress. There’s a lot of anxiety,” she said.
The Community Sponsors Program is a way to help bridge that journey, Harbourne said, adding that the program aligns with the mission of JFCS to help refugees and immigrants thrive in their new communities and feel welcome.
Participating in the program has been an amazing experience for the congregation, she said.
“I would really encourage people in Pittsburgh and around the country to think about doing it,” she added, “because there are, thankfully, refugees coming into the country again, and there’s a huge amount of need, sadly.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]