By Jan Gordon with the Sukkat Shalom Committee
Refugees seek liberation and find new freedoms. They are also strangers in a new land and feel the melancholy of missed loved ones and worry when family members who remain in their home country face danger and hardship. Temple Micah’s work with Sukkat Shalom (Shelter of Peace), which began more than four years ago, offers a welcome that lasts for generations. And it changes us, too. Why I feel Jewish is wrapped up in, exemplified by, this work by our congregation. By the time we celebrated Refugee Shabbat in early March 2022, we were expressing our purpose in new ways. Rabbi Stephanie Crawley, who often provides the spiritual context for this project, has offered us blessings. One of my favorites is “Praise to you, Adonai, who strengthens our steps.”
Our organizing dates back to 2017, when we channeled our anger over new federal immigration policies into action. Our goals were to do a little advocacy against the separation of refugee families and the Muslim ban, and to help one family. By 2021 we had done much more. We had made one Afghan family’s start in this country more successful, and their three children were thriving through uncertainty because their parents had the resources and reserves to cope. Our members also continued to provide support to them, especially through tutoring. We also became valued partners of our local resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.
Late in 2019, we visited the U.S.- Mexico border at El Paso and Juarez and made contributions to humanitarian organizations doing life-saving relief work. We decided in 2020 to support legal assistance through HIAS. Though delayed by COVID, in 2021, we leveraged HIAS’ valiant staff’s fight for asylees’ rights by providing significant funding. We raised what we needed— and more—for that project from the incredibly generous Micah community.
As the most recent crisis in Afghanistan unfolded, together we asked what more we could do. First, we found legal help and offered sponsorship for relatives of our Afghan friends who were—and still are—desperate to leave their country. There was hesitation: we remembered the exhausting process of shepherding our first family through the bureaucratic gates of all kinds of health, welfare, and educational programs. We recalled the intensity of our many meetings and the hours spent in rides to appointments, job hunts, and more. Did we have the necessary resources to do it all again? We were not sure, but we chose to go ahead anyway.
Acting on our faith, we told Lutheran Social Services we were ready to help one more family’s resettlement journey as a Good Neighbor Partner. We issued calls for volunteers and donations and—as we should have known all along—the Micah community again responded with generosity. We looked for apartments, formulated our strategy and organized teams.
We were in a hurry-up-and-wait situation as resettlement agencies, including ours, were overwhelmed with new refugee cases and volunteers to help them. Did they need us? Then, in late January, we got a call. A family needed an apartment the next week. They had a small child with a serious illness who was being treated at Children’s National Hospital through the generosity of a donor, but they had no resettlement partner. LSS had stepped up, but could we? I will remember that Zoom meeting the rest of my life. We agreed that together we had to welcome the potential for love and heartbreak. Of course we did.
We are now at the beginning of a journey of accompaniment toward the promised land. The young couple is overwhelmed with the newness of everything and completely engaged in the medical needs of their child. We are the gate openers to the wonders of American retail establishments – who could ever imagine Costco? We show our shoppers how to swipe a gift card and find eligible food under the federal nutrition program for little ones. We help locate a lost Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application (with the help of a responsive elected official’s staff). We find good female dentists to quell the anxiety and pain of a woman who is unused to contact with strange men— and those dentists donate their services.
We deliver developmentally appropriate toys and books and a sewing machine, and above all else we hope for news of the child’s improvement together with his parents. And, again, the entire Micah community and Machon Micah responds—with ongoing donations and welcome gifts, with mountains of quarters so the family can use the coin operated washer and dryer. Hundreds of people in our midst are owed thanks.
We hear the aspirations of a young man who served as a translator for several years for the US Special Forces, often in grave danger. He wants to give his family safety and find a job he can do while still putting his child’s health first. He wants to send money to people he loves remaining in Afghanistan. He wants his visa approved. He finally feels unadulterated joy in this country when, guided by one congregant, he rides through a beautiful park on the bicycle donated by another.
It is impossible to know how you can truly help the most until you step up to be a partner. We appreciate the courage of the new family. And every day we love each other more, our own capabilities as a congregation blooming like an entirely new kind of flower in a new kind of spring. Supporting our new Afghan friends has been a community-wide effort. For those Sukkat Shalom members who have had the honor of working directly with the family in recent weeks, it has been deeply affecting. Here are a few of their reflections:
“Our work with the family has brought home to me that acts of loving kindness are much more challenging than donations, monetary or otherwise. They require so much humility, selfawareness, and the willingness to really listen, so that one’s acts truly address the needs and values of the person one is trying to help rather than one’s own preconceptions of what should be done.”
“We have responded to emergency with emergence – what has ultimately come out of these crises is nothing less than a miracle…What has emerged? Dear friends – partners. You have. Temple Micah has. In ways that have inspired so much hope. In ways that have cultivated community. In ways that would make our ancestors beam. Knowing that their stories have meant something for so many others. Thank you. Thank you for all the gifts of your heart. Thank you. May all of us be blessed with emergence. The emergence of peace for all. The emergence of safety and shelter for all. The emergence of all the good that rises to fight the darkness. And a prayer – That one day, no more emergencies. Only peace that births more peace. May we all live to read that book.”
—Rabbi Stephanie Crawley
“The connection with my family’s Jewish journey is profound for me. My mother and her brothers were refugees from France after WWII. They had to pack up all of their belongings and start a new life here: a strange land with a different culture and learn a new language. I can identify somewhat with Sharifa and the others I am teaching basic English as I recall the challenge of learning to read Hebrew as an adult. The big difference is that for me, my life didn’t depend on it. For them, it really does.”
“Our work with this family has made real for me the admonition in Leviticus not to harvest the field’s corners, and to leave the gleanings for the stranger. The gleanings of the present day may differ, but the principle remains constant.”
“I had the honor of being one of the people to set up a new home for this family. Shalom bayit has always been important to me, and was very much part of the process. Home should be a safe place to land. I have sewed since I was 10, and the skill has been valuable creatively, financially and emotionally. When I went to show Sharifa how to use the sewing machine, Amir told me how different it was in Afghanistan. Sharifa had used a machine that had to be hand cranked since electricity was intermittent. Once shown how it worked, Sharifa sewed like a pro. The light in her eyes gave me pure joy! Practicing tzedaka is a wonderful feeling! Within a couple of days, she had made a pair of pants for her daughter without a pattern – a skill I doubt I will ever have!”