On Syrian refugee crisis, Jewish community moves from words to action

On Syrian refugee crisis, Jewish community moves from words to action

Relief efforts continue for Syrian refugees near the border of Serbia in Hungary. (Photo courtesy of JDC)
Relief efforts continue for Syrian refugees near the border of Serbia in Hungary. (Photo courtesy of JDC)

Will Recant pulls both heartstrings and purse strings for a living.

As the head of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a consortium of 49 national Jewish organizations, he has been at the center of the American Jewish reaction to 20 global crises in the last 20 years. Of late, his focus has been on Syria.

Last month, Jewish organizations across the country and denominational spectrum revved up their response to the refugee crisis plunging millions into desperate need and stumping world leaders, led by Recant in his role as an assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

American news networks swung their cameras towards the migration in September, resulting, predictably, in a good deal of hot air from politicians — ranging from Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s assertion that he would deport 200,000 potential asylum seekers back to Syria to Israeli Labor leader Isaac Herzog’s call for Israel to take in refugees despite a fraught relationship with its northern neighbor.

Some Jewish leaders haven’t held back as the rhetoric flies: the president of the Jewish refugee charity Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) called the U.S. State Department’s Sept. 20 announcement that it would up the number of refugees it allows into America a “symbolic measure” and a “baby step.”

But talk is cheap. Food, shelter, and healthcare can be more expensive.

Enter the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees, the JDC subgroup that counts HIAS among its 20 members. The coalition was formed to funnel money and aid to the Syrian refugees.

A 2-year-old effort by the task force to accommodate refugees from the Syrian civil war accelerated last month in response to the flood of media coverage that followed “the balloon just bursting” in terms of the displaced population, Recant said. “Systems have been completely overwhelmed.”

The result has been scenes such as crowds clashing with border police, sprawling makeshift encampments, an infant corpse washing up on a Turkish beach: all pumped into American homes by around-the-clock cable TV and online news coverage.

“There’s a direct correlation of awareness and media attention to the response,” Recant explained.

The dollar figures tell the story: Between 2013 and August 2015, the JDC coalition raised about $600,000 in relief funds. Then, in the past month alone, it raised almost $300,000.

Meanwhile, the coalition expanded from working strictly for Syrian refugees in Jordan to those in the entire region, partnering with non-governmental organizations in Hungary and Turkey. Functionally, that widens its scope from the 600,000 refugees residing in Jordan to the 4 million estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have been externally displaced by the civil war.

The expansion comes in spite of a relationship between Israeli Jews and Syria that lacks historical kinship, to say the least.

“I have personally had some calls asking, ‘Isn’t Syria an enemy state of Israel, and is helping the Syrian community in any way helping our enemy?’” Recant said. “That has been a small voice … assistance from the Jewish world has been done on a purely humanitarian basis, completely apolitical.”

While perhaps apolitical, the Jewish reaction to events in Syria isn’t without a religious element.

“The fact that this kind of grips the international consciousness right around the High Holidays added even more power to the desire to respond, when people are really thinking about issues of responsibility and our connection to others,” said Barbara Weinstein, an associate director for the Religious Action Center (RAC), the Washington, D.C.-based social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Besides fundraising for the JDC-led coalition, RAC provided special prayers and materials for rabbis hoping to sermonize on the humanitarian crisis. The group is also helping congregations sponsor refugee families for immigration to Canada, where the law allows it.

“We know that there is a great interest among our congregations, our rabbis and our congregants to play an active role in responding to this crisis,” Weinstein said. “So many of them, like people of all faiths across the country, have been deeply moved by the images and stories in the news.”

Just before Yom Kippur, Jewish World Watch — a Los Angeles-based coalition that fights genocide and mass atrocities — announced an emergency fund to provide relief to refugees displaced by violence in Syria.

“During these holiest days of the Jewish year, we have issued an urgent appeal to all members of our community to take action now,” the organization wrote.

The announcement also quoted the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But for Jewish World Watch, the Syrian refugee crisis hearkens to the more recent past.

“Our concern is the fact that there are millions of people that have been displaced and are on the move and are being treated in some ways that are terribly reflective of how Jews were treated during World War II,” said Bill Bernstein, the organization’s executive director.

Images from the region have evoked memories of Jewish internment and displacement: refugees crowded into train stations, suffocating in overcrowded transports, and in some cases of spectacular tone-deafness having numbers scrawled on their wrists.

The brute force of the Syrian regime inside that country is also conjuring memories of the Holocaust.

“When you’re barrel-bombing your own citizen and thousands of those citizens are being killed, it is of great concern that this could evolve into a genocide,” Bernstein said, adding that Jewish World Watch is still vetting potential beneficiaries of its appeal.

JDC’s Recant, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, agrees that memories of World War II play a part in motivating Jewish empathy for Syrian refugees.

“It’s dominant in our thinking,” he said. “We were there, that could be us. We understand what it is to have a child and just want your child to grow up in security and safety.”

For instance, Recant recounted receiving an email the day before Rosh Hashanah from an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who said that JDC was the only organization to help him when he left Czechoslovakia after the war. Now, he wants to travel to the region with the JDC to aid those currently in need. (Recant explained that JDC only sends trained professionals to crisis regions — so the offer was respectfully declined.)

“Once made aware, the Jewish community has been quite responsive,” he said. “I’m personally very proud of the response.”