Michael Zmora giving a speech during Refugee Shabbat at Temple Har Zion on Friday, Feb. 3. | Sara Janz

Michael Zmora, a member of West Suburban Temple Har Zion (WSTHZ), was one of two featured speakers at the Refugee Shabbat held at his temple on Harlem Avenue in River Forest, Feb. 3.

In his talk he detailed the story of how the organization he volunteers with, Refugee Community Connection, plus an extended network of non-government organizations (NGOs) worked together to resettle an Afghan refugee family. His story included having to move the family from their first apartment because of an infestation of bedbugs and delays in getting Link cards from the government so the refugee family could buy food.

“As I looked to source help for the refugee family,” he recalled, “I was impressed very quickly with how wonderfully willing people were to help on a moment’s notice. The aid provided came from people with a family history of being refugees, commonality of language, and religious calling, intertwined with a cultural refugee history.”

Rabbi Adir Glick based his sermon on the story from Exodus in which Moses, speaking for God, says to the people of Israel, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

That verse in the Torah resonates deeply with the Jewish community because of its long history of having to flee persecution and start life over in a new land.

Zmora also talked about the extensive network of volunteer organizations who cooperated to get the job of resettlement done with financial aid from government programs. Phyllis Rubin, an WSTHZ member and the emcee at the gathering, spent half an hour acknowledging the many local groups who are helping to resettle refugees, most of whom had representatives at the event. In a sense, her acknowledgments became one more iteration of “it takes a village.”

  • Oak Park Catholic parishes have started the Intercultural Immigrant Ministry to welcome refugees. Together, they have sponsored one immigrant family of four people from Venezuela.
  • Pilgrim Congregational Church has helped to set up apartments and provide baby supplies for incoming refugees in collaboration with Exodus World Service, and has recently partnered with Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest to co-sponsor a refugee family of six from the Democratic Republic of Congo, brought to Chicago by RefugeeOne.
  • Oak Park Temple sponsored a Syrian refugee family that resettled in Chicago after a decade spent in Jordan. Their agency partner was RefugeeOne, and the family settled in Rogers Park. Rabbi Daniel Kirzane said his congregation “has also participated in state-wide and national advocacy campaigns, most recently in (maddeningly unsuccessful) support of the Afghan Adjustment Act.”
  • Housing Forward, has recently re-opened an overnight shelter for the homeless at the St. Catherine-St Lucy rectory building on Austin Boulevard. Currently, most seeking shelter are from Venezuela, sent from Texas. The census ranges from 15 to 25 people per night. During the day, some of the guests spend time at the Quinn Center of St. Eulalia, in Maywood.
  • St. Luke and St. Bernardine Parish held a collection for the Asylum Seekers, in which they collected $2,100, which was sent to Catholic Charities, as requested by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
  • To help HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) welcome refugee families, the Secular Jewish Community and School (SJCS) Social Justice Committee organized an apartment set-up household items drive. HIAS Immigration & Citizenship, founded to assist Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, has expanded over time to address the needs of various immigrant groups from around the world in the last 40 years. They have assisted over 40,000 immigrants and refugees from the Former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
  • Temple Har Zion’s preschool families and the congregation have sponsored an Afghan family: a mom, dad, and two children, housed now in Skokie, and furnished their apartment.

The second featured speaker at the Refugee Shabbat was Marc Schulman, president of Eli’s Cheesecake Company in Chicago, who testified how a for-profit business can be part of the network in the mission of resettling refugees. Coincidentally, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the cheesecake bakery just two weeks before the Refugee Shabbat. In an email, Blinken said:

“Thirty percent of the team here is a refugee coming from some other distant part of the world [the Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo], coming to the United States and making their future here. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to see as you walk down the line and talk to people who are coming from all over the world, coming to the United States as their beacon of hope, and then making their future here.

“As Marc Schulman told me and would tell you, this is not a work of charity to bring people here to work at Eli’s … it’s a core part of the business.

“It doesn’t just happen, though, magically. It takes the extraordinary commitment of a great company. It takes the incredible work of our resettlement agencies to help connect refugees with places of work. And here RefugeeOne has been such an amazing partner to Eli’s and to so many others; we’re grateful for that.

“The Department of State, in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, is pleased to announce the creation of the Welcome Corps, a new private sponsorship program that empowers everyday Americans to play a leading role in welcoming refugees arriving through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and supporting their resettlement and integration as they build new lives in the United States. The Welcome Corps is the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.”

Between the service and the speakers, the 50 people in attendance at Refugee Shabbat were treated to a buffet at which they could sample several kinds of Afghan food.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...