Refugee Shabbat: A Jewish Response To The Global Refugee Crisis

(Editor’s note: Temple Israel announced that the weekend events would be rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic). 

On March 20-21 on Shabbat Vayakhel, upwards of 350 congregations, located mainly in the United States but also drawn from synagogues in Europe, Canada, and Mexico, will observe Refugee Shabbat, which has been organized by HIAS, the Jewish agency dedicated to providing refugees of all faiths and backgrounds with protection and dignity. Given that Minnesota has the nation’s highest per capita resettlement program of refugees, this forthcoming Refugee Shabbat provides our community with a meaningful opportunity for rededication to and the raising of awareness of today’s refugee crisis.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted that “narrative is identity,” and there is no more defining narrative of the Jewish people than our recurrent encounters with displacement, flight, migration, and resettlement. The Jewish connection with the refugee experience is grounded in our theology, values, and history. We will soon celebrate Pesach, which demands that we connect with our experience of the exodus from Egypt not as a passively recounted artifact, but rather as a vibrant reminder that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We understand the experience of being persecuted, its challenges, and the depredations often experienced in seeking new lives in foreign lands. And most of all, we know the tragedy of having our fundamental need for safety denied by potential resettlement countries.

It is a cornerstone in many religious traditions to love thy neighbor. But the Torah on 36 occasions – more than any other prescriptive command – calls on Jews not simply to love our neighbors, but to welcome and honor the stranger – the ger – not only because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but as a reaffirmation of kiddush ha-hayyim – the sanctification of life itself. A fundamental triumph of the Jewish people is that despite a lamentable saga of persecution throughout our history, we have found a way not only to endure but to prevail, and in so doing, we bear a commitment to give moral meaning and legal protection to those who otherwise have no voice and little hope.

We are witnessing an unprecedented surge in the number of refugees in conjunction with a retreat within the global community from providing protection to vulnerable populations. At present, there are 71 million individuals – the largest figure in recorded history – who have been displaced owing to their being persecuted and their prospects to achieve durable solutions have grown progressively more challenging.

In a sense, the global refugee framework bears a distinctive Jewish imprint as the basic legal doctrine establishing persecution as grounds for extending protection to persecuted minorities arose in the aftermath of the Holocaust, as memorialized in the Refugee Convention of 1951. Previous to the enactment of this Agreement, there was no recognized basis or global commitment to provide safety and protection to minorities facing persecution. But in the aftermath of the Convention, the United States created the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which is a public-private partnership between nine designated non-profit organizations – including HIAS – and the U.S. Department of State that has resettled, on average, 80,000 refugees on a yearly basis. In addition and as a reflection of humanitarian values, U.S. laws have provided other protective mechanisms to afford forcibly displaced persons the transformative promise of hope and safety.

At present, there is a concerning retraction of protection for refugees within many countries. In the United States, the annual refugee ceiling for this fiscal year was set at 18,000, which is the lowest figure ever, and even this paltry figure will likely not be met. We are also witnessing a vilification of foreign nationals that has resulted in a range of new initiatives that constrict the ability of asylum seekers to gain protection – to wit: The curtailment in due process protection for asylum seekers, their outright denial of access to the asylum system on the southern border, the separation of families, international travel bans that are disproportionately weighted towards certain religious groups, mandatory deportation orders for nationals of certain countries, the criminalization of efforts by asylum seekers to enter the United States, and a panoply of other measures that have a substantial chilling effect on the ability of persecuted individuals to seek protection.

Unquestionably, today’s refugee crisis is of global rather than national dimensions, and HIAS, acting in the name of the Jewish people and motivated by the history and values of our people, works globally toward the objective of seeking durable solutions for persecuted peoples. HIAS maintains 79 offices worldwide in 15 countries on five continents, providing life-saving services annually to roughly 750,000 forcibly displaced individuals. We are the largest non-governmental organization (NGO) providing refugee protection in South America, uniquely positioned to address the growing refugee crisis in that geography. The core objective of the men and women working at HIAS is to provide refugees and other forcibly displaced persons with the right to rebuild their lives in safety.

The global refugee crisis in its dimensions and complexity appears to be intractable, but it resonates very deeply in the teachings of the Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” While the scope of HIAS’ work is immense. a very abbreviated recent list of life-giving services would include: HIAS continues to resettle refugees in the United States pursuant to the current Presidential Determination; HIAS provides legal services to asylum applicants from Central America and Mexico through the HIAS Legal Fellows project, which maintains representational offices on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border; working in conjunction with Islamic Relief USA, HIAS attorneys on the Island of Lesbos, Greece, provide legal services to Syrian and other refugees seeking entry to the European Union, including a number of precedent-setting cases under EU asylum law; HIAS has developed various livelihood and entrepreneurial programs that provide refugees from South America with a pathway to economic self-sufficiency in their new host countries; HIAS provided urgent, lifesaving services to roughly 16,000 refugees who fled the inter-ethnic violence in Sudan in January, 2020; HIAS is the largest international partner of Airbnb in an initiative to provide innovative and cost-effective shelter to refugees in South America; religious minorities from Iran continue to look to HIAS to attain refugee visas to the United States; HIAS filed suit leading to the revocation of the initial Travel Ban that disproportionately targeted Muslims for visa ineligibility; HIAS is a preeminent provider of protective services to refugees suffering from gender-based violence; HIAS psychologists provide critically-needed psychosocial services to refugees confronting the trauma arising from persecution and flight; olim in Israel annually qualify for HIAS scholarships to underwrite their programs in higher education; HIAS is a partner of the World Food Programme (WFP) for food assistance and security to refugees in Chad; and closer to our Minnesota home, HIAS v. Trump successfully challenged the Executive Order that formed the basis for Beltrami County to bar refugee resettlement.

In the course of its nearly 140-year history, HIAS has resettled more than 4.5 million people, thereby enriching the American Jewish community and saving countless Jewish communities in distress. This legacy of Piddyum Hashviyim – redemption of a captive – continues to be the motivational impetus to the activities of HIAS, although its services are now performed on a global stage for refugees of diverse faiths and backgrounds. HIAS remains a deeply committed Jewish organization that draws upon Jewish history and values to provide hope to those seeking new lives in safety and dignity.

Most of all, HIAS continues to respond to the cries of refugees in the words first uttered by Abraham in creating the covenant – hineni – here I am.

For some thoughts on getting involved in HIAS and, more importantly, in the area of refugee protection, you can get some suggestions for action at

Robert Aronson is an immigration attorney and shareholder at Fredrikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis and concurrently serves as the Chair of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit agency that protects refugees whose lives are in danger for being who they are.