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Friday, July 11, 2014

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The right thing to do

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I’m president of Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s largest and arguably its most active Reform synagogue, striving to maintain a semblance of Jewish religious pluralism in a city not always inviting to our like.

Aside from being a wonderful house of prayer, we pride ourselves in three fields of activity, each immensely enriching. While, the first two, congregational and educational pursuits, are each worthy of articles of their own, it is one aspect of the third – social justice – which I presently want to address.

Roughly speaking, our activities in this area are divided into two separate segments – those dealing with charity and those with justice. Tzedakah and tzedek, two words interestingly based on the same Hebrew root.

Our tzedakah activities augment monthly incomes of poor families living in the synagogue’s vicinity and help members of our own community and those more peripheral to it facing financial hardships.

Social action is a linchpin of our community. Members, many of whom immigrated to Israel from English-speaking countries, provide free private English classes for needy kids in our environs. We’ve developed a satellite congregation in Kiryat Yovel, a neighbourhood experiencing a large haredi influx, threatening to change the vicinity’s nature. And we just celebrated our third annual Gay Pride Shabbat, the only Jewish religious institution in the country to hold such an event.

But a year and a half ago some of us felt we weren’t socially active enough. After examining several potential projects, we settled on two. One aims at combating growing racism in Jerusalem – mosque torching; soccer hooligans attacking Arab labourers after Betar Yerushalayim lost a game; businesses proudly advertising the fact they no longer employ non-Jewish workers.

The second, and the one I’m actively involved in, provides support for some 1,000 African refugees presently living throughout Jerusalem, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. They are a small part of the 60,000-plus refugees now estimated to be living in Israel, most of whom entered the country from the Sinai Peninsula after long African journeys.

In recent years, no government has earnestly dealt with the issue, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s has decided to build a fence along our border with Egypt, to prevent more refugees’ entry but also with an eye to deteriorating security conditions in Sinai since the onset of the once promising Arab Spring.

Aside from that, little has been done. No real policy dealing with employment, health care and other relevant refugee issues. In the meantime, large refugee populations have moved into poor neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv; significant groups now also reside in Eilat and Arad. Tensions have risen. As have crime rates among refugees. In the wake of two incidents of rape committed by refugees, populist politicians have made irresponsible statements about refugees being a cancer within our midst, and our haredi minister of the interior wants to get rid of all of them as quickly as possible.

My activity with refugees is based on a belief that if they are in our midst, we should treat them humanely. While this conviction has biblical foundations such as Deuteronomy’s “you shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” for me it just seems the right thing to do. The way I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes.

In that vein, last September, the Reform movement opened a kindergarten for children of foreign workers and refugees at its headquarters in Jerusalem. Once a week, for now, Kol HaNeshama volunteers add hours of activity, beyond the kindergarten’s regular schedule, so the kids’ parents can stay at work longer.

We have also opened our premises to weekly Hebrew and English-language instruction for roughly 20 refugees and have hosted a course for volunteers from all walks of life here in Jerusalem to learn more about refugees: their legal status, medical needs, how to empower them and how to help them when faced with bureaucratic and other roadblocks. On June 28, we held a charity event for a refugee youth club, initiated by several of our young adults, at which we exhibited art created by refugees and held a joint concert of our own and their singers.

I’m not averse to the government developing a responsible policy for dealing with refugees, and I don’t oppose sending some home if it won’t endanger them. But so long as they’re here, we at Kol HaNeshama will continue caring for them. It’s the only way we know.

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