by Michelle Minsky, Head of Chesed, United Synagogue
The refugee crisis has affected us all. Over the past few weeks, there has been a growing sense of awareness and concern as photos in the media depict the terrible situation of families uprooted from their homes with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn.
The refugees’ plight strikes a particular chord with our community. It was not so long ago that many of our well-established communities were in small long-forgotten towns across eastern Europe and not the institutional synagogues that we all know today.
Since the refugee crisis was first highlighted by the media, Jewish observers have proclaimed that ‘we were refugees once’. Yes, many of us certainly were and a high percentage of us are descendants of immigrants so this really hits many close to home. I am particularly proud of the response of the Orthodox communities to the refugee crisis. At a time when, rightly, our thoughts are turned daily to the situation in Israel, rabbonim across the UK have also unwaveringly been drawing the attention of members to the refugees’ plight and to what we can do to try to make a difference.
We have all, since the beginning of the crisis, been fully engaged with the issue and our leadership has taken a very clear stand against any who sought to vilify refugees simply because they have been forced out of their homelands.
We do not, however, underestimate the difficulties in integrating refugees into British society. Many of these refugees will come from war-torn countries whose ideologies and beliefs are very different, and perhaps even hostile to ours; it will take more than just giving them refuge for the refugees to integrate into our diverse British society. The challenge this represents makes our sincere engagement all the more important.
There is no more powerful time to affect the future of our community than over the Yomim Noraim. The fact that many United Synagogue Rabbonim dedicated this time to the plight of refugees shows how seriously we all take this matter.
From the top down, the United Synagogue has encouraged all communities to engage with the crisis, be it by repeatedly asking members to participate in the World Jewish Relief appeal, investigating how their own skills and resources can be used to help, or by giving suggestions for possible local chesed initiatives.
But the issue goes beyond any individual community. As a society, we must all respond and the entire UK Jewish community has a duty to work together to formulate plans that will make a real impact for refugees.
Our community has an unrivalled number of charities, chesed initiatives and community donors that means we can bring about real change and impact society as a whole. While it is no surprise that in our shuls a number of collections to support refugees have already taken place (with more to follow), to properly address an issue of this scale, we must unite and work together, aligned with the expertise of appropriate non-governmental organisations to create real change.
I am pleased the Orthodox community has been a part of a cross-communal Jewish response. A response that I believe the whole community should be proud of.
From the outset, the United Synagogue has worked alongside the Progressive movements to support social action projects and initiatives by playing their part in community planning meetings, as well as public panel discussions on the topic.
In times of crisis, particularly when it is difficult to pinpoint how best to help from afar and with conflicting information on the best possible response, our first reaction must be to raise the social conscience of our communities.
There should be no ‘us’, ‘you’ or ‘them’ in this situation.
We have a responsibility and we are all making sure that our communities are aware of their individual and collective responsibilities.
Our response is a work in progress that will continue for as long as necessary; there is no quick fix. This will be a slow process, but there’s no silence here, we must continue to work together and hopefully we can have a real impact on the many helpless refugees fleeing the violence.