By Tom Holmes
It's not headline news that West Suburban Temple Har Zion (WSTHZ) is raising $60,000 to help refugees. The big news is that the people they are helping are from a country which is in a state of war with Israel and who are, for the most part, Muslim.
This year, between February and July, WSTHZ members have committed themselves to sending $10,000 a month to a medical team working with an Israeli aid organization called IsraAID, which is helping Syrian refugees stranded, at least for the time being, on the Greek Island of Lesbos. Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since Israel became a nation in 1948. Three times — in 1948, 1967 and 1982 — the two nations became embroiled in all-out shooting wars. Since 1982 an armistice has been in place but tension remains.
This WSTHZ exercise in loving your enemies began in June of 2016 when the brother of West Suburban Temple's rabbi, Adir Glick, came to River Forest and showed a video of what IsraAID, the organization of which he is the CEO, is doing on Lesbos.
"It was very moving for me," said Rabbi Glick, "to see these refugees after their arduous journey over the sea coming ashore with hypothermia, broken limbs and PTSD — and for the medical staff with the Israeli flag sewn on their shirts coming to their aid."
Glick said that even though IsraAID is based in Israel, there are many Christians and Muslims working alongside Jews in the organization. In fact one of the IsraAID volunteers was an Israeli Arab who happened to speak the same dialect of Arabic as was spoken in the part of Syria from which this particular boatload of refugees had come.
"The Syrian refugees couldn't believe that Israelis were helping them," Glick said, "not to mention that one of them was speaking in their own dialect. It was a heart-warming story."
After viewing the video, Rabbi Glick put what IsraAID was doing on a backburner until, in his words, "this current political climate came upon us and the whole situation had a lot more urgency to it. I thought, 'Let's do it right now.'"
So he and the congregation's leadership worked with IsraAID to design a program in which they would not only support a medical team, consisting of a doctor and a nurse, for six months at a total cost of $60,000 but also try to form a personal relationship with the team through Skype, with the children in the WSTHZ religious school sending art to the refugees. At the very first meeting about the project with the congregation, $15,000 was raised, one-fourth of what they needed for the entire six months.
The youth in Laurie Myers' religion class, who are preparing for their bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmed that the project was enabling the creation of some simple personal connections with the refugees and the people coming to their aid.
One student, Theo Friedman, said, "Helping the Syrian refugees is good because they've just gone through a lot."
Myers added, "We watched a video of IsraAID in which my students saw babies and kids coming on the boats and they got a feel for what the refugees were going through. It seemed like it affected them as well as me."
Student Alexis Kohn said, "When I helped serve food at PADS, it kind of made me feel a little sad for the people who didn't really have that much. We saw kids and that made me feel even sadder because they don't get to grew up with a lot of the things we have."
David Flint added, "Collecting money for the Syrian refugees is like a mitzvah for them, doing something good for another person."
Jonathan Schiff said, "I feel it's a good thing we're doing. It's helping a lot of people."
Stewart Figa, the congregation's cantor, observed that many WSTHZ members can empathize with Syrian refugees because they themselves were in the "same boat" not that long ago.
"Unfortunately," he said, "that is part of our history. I myself am the child of refugees. My parents survived the holocaust and had to wait some time for the United States to open their borders for that class of refugees, so it hits home. I'm glad we have this opportunity to give back."
Rabbi Glick recalled it was while he was doing volunteer work with another aid organization in Katmandu that he decided to become a rabbi.
"The leader of the program there taught me two things that have stuck with me," said Glick. "One is the Talmud says you should help the poor of your own city first before helping others, but in our globalized world, 'your city' extends to the entire world because we're all connected."
"Second, he noted that young Jews these days feel like they have to choose between their identity and their humanity. They often feel that their identity as Jews is a barrier to their humanity. He would like to teach them that their Judaism is the gateway to their humanity, that Judaism is their way of expressing their universal value."