On February 27th, still reeling from the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and in our own backyard, we learned that the Perlman Jewish Day School, on the campus of the Kaiserman JCC – my gym, my kids’ pre-school, my safe place – was closed due to bomb threats. Jewish day schools up and down the Eastern seaboard were also closed because of bomb threats. What are we, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania, to make of this? We, who have been trying to protect immigrants and refugees of all faiths from the new Administration’s weekly attacks since January 20 find ourselves reflecting, sadly, on the relationship between those attacks against immigrants and refugees and these attacks against Jews.
We were founded 134 years ago by Jews seeking to rescue fellow Jews from pogroms (terrorist attacks on Jews in Eastern Europe). We lived through the Holocaust, the Soviet Jewry movement and most recently, the Jews needing rescue from the Ukraine. And through it all, HIAS Pennsylvania has been the rescuer, not the one needing rescue.
But today, with 22 million refugees in the world and 63.5 million displaced persons, we live in a country that wants to forbid the rescue of whole countries of persons fleeing war and persecution and whole religious groups. We live in a country that deems 50,000 – the lowest number of refugees accepted into this country since September 11 – to be an appropriate number to welcome without regard to what will happen to the remaining millions or to our European allies who will have to shoulder the lion’s share of responding to this humanitarian crisis.
What does all this have to do with the horrendous events of the past several days? These attacks bring into stark relief the world that we are creating – a world where a Jewish Agency can no longer welcome hundreds of Muslim refugees, where a Syrian Christian case manager can no longer welcome a Bhutanese Muslim family, where a Burmese employment specialist can no longer help an Iraqi teacher find a professorship at Temple University and where a young third generation American woman with Irish roots can no longer welcome a single Ugandan gay man who left his family, his home, his country and everything he had ever known, fleeing through the middle of the night so that he could come to a place where he can love who he chooses.
It is not clear who committed the recent acts of hatred against the Jewish community or why. But here’s what is clear, HIAS Pennsylvania’s history and mission are rooted in the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger. And welcoming the stranger is all about transforming – through love – a stranger into a friend. Policies that interfere with that history and that mission are policies that, at best arrest the transformative power of welcoming and at worst lead to the divisiveness and hatred that we see all around us today. We are heartbroken for those that have suffered directly at the hands of whoever did this and we are heartbroken for ourselves who for so many years had peace within our grasp.
We will attend the community gathering sponsored by the City on Thursday and pray for peace to be restored and for the chance to continue practicing peace. We stand with all of you who have suffered and take strength from your support in these dark times. Shalom Aleichem.