A dozen people stand holding up a blue banner that reads "Refugees Welcome" in large white letters.
Activists hold a banner during a pro-refugee demonstration organized by HIAS outside the U.S. Capitol, Sept. 14, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Aaron P. Bernstei-Getty Images)

On Refugee Shabbat, stories of welcoming and concern for security

Odessa residents Max and Yuna fled Ukraine the day the Russian invasion began, on Feb. 24, 2022. The two spent the next uncertain seven months in Poland. With the assistance of the Jewish humanitarian organization HIAS, they were eventually resettled in a Long Island community, where they found support from a Reform congregation.

Their story and others will be highlighted during HIAS’ Refugee Shabbat 2023, an opportunity for congregations to dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers.

At least 10 Bay Area congregations are participating in Refugee Shabbat, which is taking place Feb. 3-4 but can be marked anytime through the spring. For security reasons, J. is not identifying participating synagogues. The 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was motivated, in part, by the synagogue’s public commitment to refugee work.

“We as Jews know what it’s like to be the stranger in a strange land — part of who we are is welcoming the stranger,” Debbie Michels, manager of public relations at Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, said in an interview.

Michels is one of several refugee professionals who will be appearing at Bay Area congregations to commemorate Refugee Shabbat. Susan Frazer, new CEO at JFS, will be speaking with Michels in Redwood City.

Representatives of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay will also speak at local congregations about their recent efforts providing resettlement, vocational and career support, among other services, to Ukrainian and Afghan refugees.

JFS Silicon Valley and JFCS/East Bay are two of HIAS’ resettlement partners in the Bay Area.

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Refugee Shabbat, said Michels, is an opportune time to spread awareness about the important work Jewish social service agencies do on behalf of refugees.

“We find the synagogues in the Jewish community who embrace the refugees, and if we can share what’s going on locally and around the world here in our synagogues and raise awareness,” she said, “we can find a lot of support there.”

Michael Chertok
Michael Chertok

JFCS/East Bay Chief Advancement Officer Michael Chertok told J. his organization has been in contact with the Bay Area synagogues that plan to organize Refugee Shabbat programming. JFCS/East Bay staff, board members, committee members and volunteers will be speaking at various synagogues, he said.

“We’re excited so many of the congregations we reached out to responded and are interested,” Chertok said. “We’re excited to show the connection between the huge numbers of refugees globally and how the East Bay Jewish community has stepped up to resettle refugees over the past year.”

During this time of year, Jews read from the Book of Exodus, whose story of the Israelites wandering in Egypt has resonance with the plight of contemporary refugees. “So it’s quite relevant,” Chertok said.

There is no uniform way synagogues mark Refugee Shabbat, but participating congregations and individuals hosting events in their private homes receive access to HIAS’ library of relevant resources, including liturgical readings, Shabbat sermon talking points, a text study and a list of ways people can take action on their own or as a group. If congregations have a relationship with a refugee or refugee professional in their community, HIAS encourages inviting that person to speak at their services or events.

At a synagogue in San Jose, Refugee Shabbat will be incorporated into Kabbalat Shabbat services. Meanwhile, a community in Saratoga will be fusing elements of HIAS programming into a women’s Shabbat service planned for the last Saturday of this month.

“Everybody’s different in how they address Refugee Shabbat,” Michels said.

This year marks the fifth year of HIAS’ Refugee Shabbat. Co-organizers of the project include Reconstructing Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International.

The world’s oldest refugee agency, HIAS was formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It was conceived in the early 1900s to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Today, the organization describes itself as a “multi-continent, multi-pronged humanitarian aid and advocacy organization,” expanding its mission to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees.

In light of the fall of Kabul in August 2021, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, HIAS has focused on resettling Afghans while providing humanitarian support to refugees from Ukraine. JFCS/East Bay, for its part, has resettled 1,000 refugees from Afghanistan over the past year as well as 250 refugees from Ukraine, Chertok said.

According to HIAS, “the total number of displaced persons globally is over 100 million. This [Refugee Shabbat] is a critical moment for all of us to reaffirm and redouble our support for refugees and asylum seekers.”

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.