A Jews calling: Emanu-El congregant helps refugees in Greece

Before he left for Greece last month to help Syrian refugees, San Francisco resident Alex Scotta heeded the advice of a friend. Bring lollipops, she told him. And he did. Seven hundred of them.

In addition to 600 pounds of winter clothing, shoes and thermal blankets — all donated by his fellow congregants at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco — Scotta also packed the all-important lollipops. He would need them to put smiles on the faces of traumatized children pulled from chilly Aegean waters.

For eight days, Scotta joined hundreds of aid workers on the beaches of Lesbos, a Greek island and popular landing point for tens of thousands of refugees — among the 4 million Syrians who have fled their country, hounded by ISIS and a four-year civil war that has claimed 200,000 lives.

on the cover: Alex Scotta and Nancy Levine with bagged donations (photo/courtesy emanu-el) and refugees in Lesbos, Greece (photos/alex scotta)

The crisis has drawn international attention, with debates raging across Europe and the United States about what to do with these desperate people, most of whom are Muslim  — should they be admitted, and if so, how many? And for how long?

While the debate continues, international aid organizations, Israel’s IsraAid among them, have responded, setting up tent cities and makeshift kitchens, and scanning the Greek beaches for rickety boats packed with these newly homeless refugees making their way to safety.

What compelled Scotta, a self-employed professional caterer who lives a comfortable Bay Area existence with his husband and 2-year-old son, to interrupt his life this way?

Though the Syrian refugee crisis had personally troubled him for months, Scotta was motivated by Emanu-El Rabbi Ryan Bauer, whose High Holy Day sermon in September was a call to action.

“We must be the generation that helps bring in the refugees during this global conflict,” Bauer sermonized on Yom Kippur. “I don’t want to call it a cause, because this is not a cause for us. This is our obligation; this is what we do. This is not a cause; this is a Jew’s calling.”

Soon after, financial donations from congregants to aid organizations such as HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, started to roll in.

But it was only after Scotta decided to go to Greece that donations of winter clothing and shoes poured in. Within about 72 hours of a request from Bauer and the synagogue’s Tzedek Council, some 7,000 pounds-worth had been dropped off at the synagogue.

Fourteen duffel bags with donated jackets, shoes and baby clothes accompanied Scotta on his venture.

Refugee children in Lesbos, Greece, are treated to lollipops brought from San Francisco.

Upon his return, he told J. he felt he “had to be there,” for he was once in similar shoes, living 20 years in this country as an undocumented immigrant from Argentina.

Scotta said he asked himself, “Where is the community saying to these people, ‘We’ve got your back’? I see their situation, fleeing their home countries, not knowing whether they would be welcomed or relegated to second-class citizenship. I saw a lot of parallels, and I just had to be there.”

The village of Skala Sikamineas lies on the north shore of Lesbos, a dozen miles from the Turkish mainland. To a Californian, the beaches look familiar: sun-drenched, pebble-strewn, dotted with brush and cactus not unlike Malibu and Morro Bay.

Then, bobbing in the waves, they come. From the east, a frantic flotilla of vessels, some little more than rubber rafts, crowded with people wearing orange life vests. Some days 1,000 people arrive. Other days it may be as many as 4,000.

That was the chaotic and dramatic scene Scotta found when he arrived at Lesbos on Nov. 13. He had made no arrangements other than a hotel reservation; he knew once he got to the village, someone would put him to work.

After checking in at his hotel, Scotta walked 150 feet to the beach where he found an aid station. There he joined a small army of volunteers from around the world, some working with established agencies, others freelancers like himself.

“I met a team from Sweden making cheese-and-jam sandwiches,” Scotta recalled. “That was the first thing I started doing.”

Because of his experience in food preparation, Scotta made himself indispensible in the two makeshift kitchens, which ran entirely on donated goods, such as breads from a local bakery. The hot kitchen served soup and tea, the cold kitchen offered sandwiches, cookies, bottled water and fruit.

Scotta quickly absorbed the lay of the land. Lesbos hosted two refugee camps in nearby towns, both run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency established on Dec. 14, 1950. Both camps erected large tents that slept scores of refugees.

Alex Scotta (above) helps put a smile on the face of one of the rescued children photo/courtesy of alex scotta

Skala Sikamineas had no such camp. It was more of a landing zone, a place where Turkish smugglers steered their human cargo to shore. Between kitchen duties, Scotta would wade into the water as the steady stream of boats neared.

“Typically they’d land right in front of us,” he recalled. “They got helped out of the water [and] assessed for who might need medical attention. Occasionally you saw someone with broken bones. One fellow had been on dialysis and was sent off to the hospital. Everyone would then be sent to the changing area to change into dry clothes.”

Scotta said he will never forget the faces of those he helped pull to shore, many from Syria but others from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other hot spots. The children were often terrified to be helped ashore by strangers. The adults had to fight through the language barrier to make their wishes known.

Scotta remembers one encounter when he and two colleagues drove cars packed with supplies down to the beach.

“The first person who approached us was a man in his mid-50s with the most desperate look on his face,” Scotta remembered of one shivering refugee. “He kept pointing to his feet. He was wearing a pair of women’s sandals with tiny sunflowers on them, four sizes too small. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, when the temperature starts to drop drastically.”

After fishing through one of the supply bags, Scotta found a pair of warm shoes for the man, who tearfully thanked him and the other volunteers.

One day Scotta went to the town of Moria, about a mile inland and home to one of the two large temporary camps. There, refugees wait to catch a ferry to Athens and from there they ultimately move on to Macedonia, Germany, Spain or some other final destination. The refugee population varies from day to day as new people arrive and others depart, but it averages in the thousands.

Alex Scotta works in one of the makeshift kitchens in the Greek village of Skala Sikamineas, where more than 1,000 refugees arrive each day cold, wet, hungry and dehydrated. photos/courtesy alex scotta

Scotta was unprepared for what he saw.

“If you think of hell, that’s what Moria is,” he said. “Never in my 44 years have I seen anything like it. As we pulled up to the camp you see people everywhere on the side of the road in a very disturbed state. These people have already been through a lot. Then they get to Moria and are as confused and defeated as can be.”

The Greek government and the European Union technically run the Moria camp (a former government detention center), but the huge numbers of daily arrivals mean volunteers and NGOs play a big role. Many reside in tents set up in nearby olive groves.

In a Facebook post, Scotta described the chaos, destruction, filth, and streams of waste covering the olive fields where refugees, most from Afghanistan, camped. Smoke from campfires choked the night air.

Yet even amid the chaos, counterintuitive images abounded. Scotta saw enterprising vendors selling everything from gyros to cellphone SIM cards.

In Moria, Scotta and his colleagues noticed a teenage boy crying, his face buried in his hands. After handing him food and a sweater, Scotta tried to communicate with him. The boy said his name was Ohmed, a refugee from Afghanistan who had left his family behind in search of a better life. He managed to say in broken English, “I miss my mom.”

Scotta handed his cellphone to Ohmed, who dialed his mother and had a tearful conversation.

Later that day, Scotta described the exchange on Facebook:  “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, he kept repeating as he gave me the strongest and most heartfelt embrace I have ever received.”

Bauer, in his 10th year as a rabbi at Emanu-El, spent a month over the summer crafting a nice sermon for Yom Kippur. Yet all the while, news of the Syrian refugees grabbed his attention. Images such as the now infamous photo of a dead Syrian child washed up onshore not only shocked him; they made him angry.

So he sat down to write again, and in less than an hour he had a new sermon on the refugees and the Jewish community’s obligation to help them.

At that time, “No one was mentioning it,” he said of the refugee crisis. “I don’t think anyone realized the size of it. I’m a news junkie, but even I had missed the United Nations’ estimate of 60 million refugees worldwide, the most since World War II. So I had to stand up and say something.”

Drawing on his Austrian-born grandmother’s experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria for the United States, and Emanu-El’s history of assisting European Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Bauer said in his Yom Kippur sermon that the current refugee crisis is once again testing the Jewish community.

Bauer urged congregants to donate to Jewish aid agencies such as the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, and to push their elected officials to resist nativism by allowing refugees to settle here. He also called on the local Jewish community to aid refugees once they arrive by tutoring and mentoring them — and allowing them into their homes.

“Those people are not ‘those people,’ ” he told the congregation. “They are us.”

Immediately after the High Holy Days, Bauer and Emanu-El congregants took action. The rabbi reached out to Jewish Vocational Service, HIAS, Jewish Family and Children’s Services on his side of the bay, and Jewish Family and Community Services in the East Bay — all agencies that have been active in resettling refugees. He solicited donations to the aid agencies, and offered Emanu-El as a resource partner if and when new Syrian refugees arrived.

Several families in the congregation offered to adopt any Syrian orphans who made it to the Bay Area, though the vetting process could last years. So to generate immediate help, the call went out to collect money and materials for the storm-tossed refugees reaching the camps of Lesbos.

Nancy Levine, chair of Emanu-El’s Tzedek Council subcommittee on human rights, coordinated the effort. And when Scotta declared his intention to go to Greece, she helped him, too.

“When we heard Alex was going, the collection drive was managed by our group,” Levine said. “The volume of donations was beyond our expectations, but he could only take so much. Now we have about 6,000 pounds of items all bagged. As soon as we find a method to ship it, we will.” 

She emphasized that the material is earmarked for Syrian refugees, and that fundraising to pay for the shipping costs is underway. Should it prove prohibitively expensive, Plan B is to send the clothing to local charities, but Levine said every effort is being made to get these donations to the Syrian refugees.

She also echoed the sentiment Bauer expressed in his sermon.

“Jews have been in the same situation where they had to flee,” she noted. “We’ve been in similar shoes of having to get to safe ground. The sermon expedited the council’s work faster than we were anticipating. That’s a good problem to have.”

After he and his husband made a financial donation to the cause, Scotta knew that wasn’t enough. The refugee story, he said, would not let go of him, especially after he saw the terrified faces of the children in news reports.

That resonated because he and his husband had to endure a string of legal issues in the adoption of their son.

“When we went through what we did with our son, we had an amazing community that came forward,” he recalled. “Our world did not let our son fall through the cracks. So every minute of every day that I couldn’t be [in Greece], it just killed me. Finally I said [to my husband], ‘Adam, I hope you understand, but I have to go there.’ ”

Before leaving, Scotta and the rabbi made a short YouTube video that was sent to every congregant. It featured them lamenting the refugees’ plight and urging Emanu-El congregants to help.

The video ended with a quote from Leviticus: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The congregation came through with $1,900 to pay for Scotta’s exorbitant baggage fee for those 14 duffel bags. Other than that, he self-financed his trip.

For most of his time in Greece, Scotta worked in the makeshift kitchen, making hundreds of sandwiches each day. He did have those harrowing moments on the beach with traumatized refugees, but there were plenty of happy moments, too. Most of them involved the children.

“When you engage with kids, it’s like music,” he said. “There is no language to interacting with a kid. You do something goofy, they will laugh, and they will make you laugh. The refugees could not have been any more civilized or organized. They were so well mannered.”

Now that he’s been back nearly a month, Scotta feels good about what he did, but he isn’t satisfied. He said there remains too much work to be done. He is also troubled by the anti-refugee sentiment that has dominated the national discourse following the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks.

“Part of what needs to happen is that we should stop with the labels,” he said. “Black, white, Muslim, gay, straight — we are humans, period. To a large extent that is what all the volunteers felt.”

Scotta isn’t the only Emanu-El congregant lending a helping hand in Greece. Denise Aptekar of San Francisco was scheduled to fly out Dec. 17 to pick up where Scotta left off. She, too, felt moved to act after Bauer’s sermon, and will be volunteering with her mother, sister and teenage niece, all of Los Altos Hills.

She says she has “time and the [frequent flier] miles to help.”

Like Scotta, Aptekar was planning to go to Lesbos with several bags of donated clothes and shoes. She also planned to be wearing a Magen David necklace.

“This isn’t about me,” she said. “It’s about the refugees. This is not the time to make a political statement. This is a humanitarian crisis, and yet I still want to wear my Judaism. I would like to be visibly Jewish and bring my Jewish values to this humanitarian work in a quiet way.”

Meanwhile, Scotta hopes to address the Emanu-El congregation to recount his journey. He also hopes to return to Lesbos, as the work there is far from done. Until then, he has been soliciting donations for a U.N. fund to raise more than  $1 million to buy tens of thousands of blankets and sleeping bags for refugees.

“I came back energized to do more work in whatever capacity,” he said. “This goes back to one simple element: one community with no labels. I want my son to grow up in a world where he doesn’t see anything else but people.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.