Back in the fall of 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis was making headlines on a daily basis, Melina Macall called her rabbi at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey. She asked how the Jewish community was responding to this urgent humanitarian issue.
As it turned out, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman had just received a similar inquiry from another congregant, Kate McCaffrey. Bnai Keshet would soon be among the first members of the HIAS Welcome Campaign, a network of more than 360 congregations across the United States responding to the largest refugee crisis in human history, but McCaffrey felt like she could be doing even more.
“The rabbi played matchmaker and he put us together,” says McCaffrey, who teamed up with Macall in December 2015 to start the Syria Supper Club, the flagship initiative of the United Tastes of America, in an attempt to change the narrative around refugees “from fear and hostility to warmth and friendship.”
Their first program brought Syrian refugees and members of the local Jewish community together for a “traditional” Jewish Christmas dinner of Chinese food.
After the success of that event, and experiencing the boundless hospitality of the refugees they had forged connections with, the two realized that they had stumbled onto a format with serious potential. They saw a chance to create a platform for breaking down stereotypes and building mutual understanding in the midst of an often toxic debate around refugees.
With food and camaraderie as the common denominators, Macall and McCaffrey conceived of the supper club as a way to create additional pathways to increased independence for resettled refugees in their community who were just getting on their feet in a new country. They also wanted to encourage more people to seek out first-hand encounters with refugees beyond what they read in the news.
The duo began hosting dinners, starting in Macall’s backyard, where refugee cooks would prepare dinner for an assortment of guests. Proceeds go toward supporting the cooks and their families as they begin their new lives.
Since the effort started, Macall and McCaffrey have coordinated over 75 events for more than 1,200 total guests. They have over 30 cooks who are eager to participate, and the dinners often sell out several weeks in advance.
“On the one hand, you can look at this and just say, ‘hey, it's just a dinner party,’ explains Macall.
“And on the other hand, you can say, you know what? It's actually a radical act saying, we have faith in humanity.”
One of their first cooks, Rana, fled from Aleppo, Syria with her husband and three daughters.
After fleeing to Jordan and being granted refugee status by the United Nations, it took three years for Rana and her family to find safety in the United States.
She says she does her best to make home-cooked recipes that represent traditional Syrian food for the supper club events, because she wants to “show people how good it is.”
“They have lost everything, but there is familiarity in the food,” notes Macall. “There is familiarity in the preparation of the food.”
“For those who have never met a Syrian, I wish they would learn that if you take the label Syrian off, you just have somebody who could be you.”
To learn more about the American Jewish community’s response to the global refugee crisis, visit www.hias.org/hias-welcome-campaign. To read more about the United Tastes of America, or to sign up for a Syria Supper Club dinner, visit www.syriasupperclub.org.