On Wednesday, March 29, hundreds packed into the main sanctuary at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., and it seemed one word was on everyone’s lips: welcome.
"The American Jewish community owes its very existence to periods when America was true to its founding values and welcomed refugees,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS.
"Please keep fighting with us to preserve this tradition, because an America that welcomes refugees is an America worth fighting for," Hetfield said.
The event was organized in partnership with Adas Israel Congregation and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, along with over 50 local and national co-sponsors. The moral imperative for the Jewish community to continue fiercely advocating for welcome was powerfully present throughout the evening.
Alfred Munzer, a Holocaust survivor, told the nearly 800-person crowd, “I am able to stand before you today because a Dutch Indonesian family and their Muslim nanny living in Nazi-occupied Holland risked their lives to open the door to their home and save a nine-month old Jewish baby.” His two sisters, six and eight at the time, were killed in Auschwitz.
“I am here today to give voice to my sisters Eva and Leah and to the 1.5 million other children killed in the Holocaust who call out for the children burnt and maimed and orphaned by bombs in Syria. Their plight must be front and center of this country’s foreign policy and of the world’s attention,” Munzer said.
He was followed by Aliaa Noha Khaled, a Syrian woman currently seeking asylum in the United States for herself and her two daughters. But it was Noha’s 10-year-old daughter Loor who stole the show. “We are grateful to America—but not for its most recent policies,” she deadpanned, precociously.
“Do you remember Steve Jobs?” she asked, reminding the crowd that, just like her, he was the child of Syrian immigrants. She closed on a message of hope and unity. “Through all this pain and suffering, we will not give up hope… We will keep hoping and dreaming and praying together—Jews, Muslims and Christians—Shalom, todah, a salaam aleikum.”
The crowd responded enthusiastically.
Many held signs and a few brought photographs of family members who had been refugees or immigrants in the past.
“We in this room tonight are part of an even larger national movement for refugees.” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement at HIAS. “Literally tens of thousands of Jews are supporting and welcoming and advocating on behalf of refugees.”
The assembly also featured remarks by several elected officials, who voiced their own concerns about what the environment in Washington, D.C. was doing to tarnish the U.S. legacy of welcome.
“We know this is a ‘never again’ moment,” said Congressman Brad Schneider of Illinois. “We need to make sure that the America that welcomed us continues to welcome refugees; today, tomorrow, forever.”
“President Trump has turned a cold shoulder to refugees. Our Jewish history and shared values, along with basic human compassion, will not allow us to do the same,” said Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “The unwavering commitment of HIAS to provide a life of dignity, freedom and security for the world’s most vulnerable refugees has never been more urgently needed.”
“If the current administration believes that we are going to accept the scapegoating and typecasting and vilifying of victims of civil war and persecution and authoritarianism, then they don’t know who we are,” Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland said.
“The America we know and love is not lost to us forever, but we have to keep fighting for it,” urged DC Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.
At the end of the program, Rebecca Kirzner, HIAS Director of Campaigns asked those in attendance to stand up “if you commit to visibly, publicly showing that you personally support refugees.” There was a momentary pause, and then chairs creaked as hundreds rose to their feet.
“If all of our combined efforts save even a single person’s life, then every minute will have been worth it,” Kirzner said. “But we are not just talking about one life – we are talking about tens of thousands.”
Missed the event, but still want to engage? Click here to find out how you can take action for refugees today.