Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish. Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.

D’var Torah
Yom Kippur Day 5777
10 Tishrei 5777 // October 12, 2016

Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish.
Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

Even if the JCOGS board didn’t know at the time,
they were partnering with G-d,
choosing life over death.
Berosh Hashanah Yikateivun,
Uv’yom Tzom Kippur Yechateimun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Just three weeks ago,
after a great deal of positive discussion and support,
the JCOGS board unanimously decided to join the over 200 synagogues
that signed on to the Welcome Campaign of HIAS.
HIAS has over 130 years of expertise
as the only Jewish-American organization
that helps rescue and resettle refugees whose lives are in danger.
The words of the campaign we signed read as follows:
“We, Jewish congregations and communities from around the country,
are signing onto HIAS’ Welcome Campaign
as an affirmative statement in support
of welcoming refugees to the United States.
With over 65 million people displaced from their homes worldwide,
we see the plight of contemporary refugees as simultaneously
an alarming global crisis
and an issue that resonates very deeply with Jewish history and values.
Throughout history, the Jewish people have been forced
to flee persecution and seek safety in other lands.
Throughout history, we have been refugees.
Today, inspired by the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger,”
our communities call upon the government of the United States
to rise to the leadership that this crisis warrants.

Individually, we, the congregations on this list,
are taking action in a variety of ways including:
educating others about refugees, advocating with elected officials,
holding events and programs, raising money to support refugees,
building partnerships and helping refugees in our local communities.

Together, we, the congregations on this list,
comprise a powerful Jewish voice in support of refugees worldwide.

Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish.
Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.”

There are a lot of discussions that happen at the board level.
You can imagine, a group of Jews, such as our JCOGS board,
don’t always agree on everything,
and it’s not typical to hold an unanimous vote.

So, how then, did 212 Jewish congregations, as of today,
choose to join this particular campaign?
How did we, the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe,
willingly and lovingly, do the same?
What is it about the refugee crisis that captivates the Jewish psyche?

On such a powerful, critical issue,
it is hard for me to put into words the sentiments of others.
But I can speak about my own family’s journey,
and why this campaign feels so critical to me, personally.

I have spoken before of my Zaidie, Joseph Fainsilber.
His story, in many ways, is the most powerful story I grew up with.
He was a member of the Polish army in 1939.
There he served, ready to fight for a county
that was not known for its hospitality towards Jews.
My Zaidie was always a good schmoozer.
Those who met him easily took to him.
It is not too surprising, then,
that when his commanding officer found out that
the German army was about to invade,
he told my grandfather to flee from Poland.
My Zaidie and Bubbie made their way through Russia during the war.
They lived in DP camps after the war,
only to make it to Montreal in 1947,
by claiming he was a tailor
when he had never sewn a button or cut a cloth in his life.

Perhaps it was the greatest guilt of the previous century that,
after years of closed borders,
countries like Canada and the U.S.
finally opened their doors to the arrival of Jews.
With my Bubbie Toba, and three children —
my father who was born in Russia,
an aunt who was born in an Austrian DP camp,
and one born in Canada  —
they lived a safe life on the shores of the New World in Montreal.

Thanks to some luck, the officer who told my Zaidie to flee,
a few sudden decisions, and the open borders,
I stand here before you today.

If you haven’t already, think back into your own past.
None of us are native to this land.
We each carry stories of migration,
so many of us sharing family histories fleeing terror and war.
Perhaps you yourself faced such trauma along your own life’s journey.

This is an essential part of the Jewish story.
Even in our congregation,
we have families who endured pogroms and expulsion.
We have Holocaust survivors,
including children survivors.
And we have children and grandchildren of survivors.

Yet, despite the stories of survival,
there are innumerable stories of tragedy and death
thanks to war and terror,
and thanks to the closed hands of Europe and North America.

For my Zaidie, not a single blood relative
closer than a fourth cousin (whom he never met) survived.

Today, more than at any other time since WWII,
there is a refugee crisis akin to what my Zaidie faced.
Our Yom Kippur liturgy challenges us
to take our place as G-d’s hands in this global emergency.

Who shall live and who shall die?

Shortly, we will chant these words of the Unetaneh Tokef.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be…
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
who by earthquake and who by plague;
who by strangling and who by stoning.

These are words that ring true today, as ever.
Here I share with you some headlines
from some all too recent articles.

Who By Water?
“The Young Girl and the Sea” –
Another boat ferrying refugees to Europe has
capsized between Turkey and Greece.
Rescuers arrived too late to save them all. i

Who By Hunger?
“Hunger, and Hard Choices, for Africa’s Struggling Refugees” –
Across the continent, funding shortfalls and insecurity
are forcing steep cuts in food rations for many of the most vulnerable. ii

Who By Plague?
“More than 1,200 Die of Starvation and Illness at Nigeria Refugee Camp” –
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) finds catastrophic
humanitarian emergency at Bama camp for people fleeing Boko Haram. iii

Who By Stoning?
“Sad End for Young Refugee” –
Asho Duhulow was keen to escape the dismal
Kenyan refugee camp for displaced Somalis.
So the 13-year-old returned to her parents’ homeland.
But there, she was raped and then stoned to death. iv

The headlines can often feel more surreal than real.
Thousands have lost their lives through war and terror,
through dangerous, overcrowded boat rides,
through illness and rape and more.
It is often the images that have shaken us to the core,
particularly of a 5-year-old’s bloodied face,
or a child on the shore, drowned to death at sea.
G-d willing, we are shaken enough to action.

Indeed, through the words of our liturgy,
we learn that who shall live and who shall die
is mitigated by three essential human actions.
U’Teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah.

Teshuvah is repentance and return.
It is the call within to return to a higher state,
to live into our best selves.
Tefillah is the prayer that enables us to align our hearts and minds
to be the change we wish to see in the world.
Tzedakah is righteous action,
it is giving and acting on behalf of those most vulnerable.

What is supposedly a Divine decree of who shall live and die
is actually in our hands.
Death is in the hands of those who reject these three core actions,
by causing terror or unjust war,
and by those who close their doors to those in need.
And life is in the hands of all of us
who seek communal repentance and prayer and righteousness,
and who stand up for the most powerless.

It is in the hands of HIAS,
who have helped resettle countless refugees for the past 130 years.

And it is in the hands of the staff and volunteers
at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program,
who painstakingly work to ease and integrate refugees into a new society,
to welcome them at the airport,
to furnish their apartments and help set them up in their new homes,
to register their children in local schools,
and accompany them to initial medical appointments and job interviews,
to help the parents find work, and offer them cultural orientation classes,
knowing that embracing new refugees
can make all the difference for the rest of their lives in the U.S.

It is the hands of Rutland Welcomes
and those in Rutland, Vermont,
who are doing unprecedented work
as they plan to welcome
over 100 new Syrian refugees in the coming months,
and as they shift public opinion there.

And, perhaps most critically for us tonight,
it is in our hands, too —
all those gathered here today,
and all of our JCOGS membership, guests and visitors.

Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish.
Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.

This is why we signed the Welcome Campaign.

This is why on our Mitzvah Day just a month ago,
we came together to make over 70 welcome baskets
for refugees resettling to Vermont.

This is why we also made welcome cards to accompany the baskets
so that these people would know
how lovingly we embrace them
upon entering the United States.

This is why hanging on your chairs are HIAS door hangers
for you to take to each of your homes,
and to learn more about the Jewish work of HIAS,
and to show that you too have a welcoming home.

This is why we have additional educational material
about refugee resettlement
out in the foyer for you to look at.

This is why we hope you will join us
for Shabbat and Sukkot
when staff of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program
and resettled refugees to Vermont
will be with us for a dinner and talk.

And this is why you will be hearing more from
the Tikkun Olam Repairing the World Committee
in the weeks and months to come
as they bring more awareness and actions to our community,
including opportunities to donate and volunteer for this cause.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah…
Life and death are in our hands.
Not just in our minds and hearts, but in our hands.
Ultimately, the question is how will you step up?
Share your ideas with the Tikkun Olam Committee,
and help make ideas a reality.
There is so much work to be done.
All hands are welcome at JCOGS to help in our efforts.

In the words of one of our own JCOGS members,
Stephen Rosenbloom,
who has volunteered directly with Refugees for nearly a decade:
“We historically are all refugees that enriched our country.
I’m…driven because we must do better
than a past and present that closes the doors for many.
This includes those that were trying to find refuge
in Canada and the United States from certain death by the Third Reich.
And yet there are victims of more modern day tyrants
that we cannot turn our backs on.”

And so, through our words,
let us honour all of our ancestors
who perished at the hands of terror and war.
Let us honour all those who made it across to these safe shores.
Let us honour those who welcomed us in our time of need.
Let us honour all the refugees this year and past years
who have died on their journeys through treacherous waters.
And let us work to ensure that all shall live in safety and prosperity.

For those of us lucky enough
ourselves or our parents or grandparents,
to have found a way out,
may our good works
be a testament and honour
to the memories of all those who perished.

Gmar Chatima Tova,
May our own actions and deeds this year
seal us and all refugees in the Book of Life.

i http://tracks.unhcr.org/2015/09/the-young-girl-and-the-sea
ii http://tracks.unhcr.org/2014/07/hunger-and-hard-choices-for-africas-struggling-refugees
iii https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/23/refugees-die-starvation-illness-nigeria-camp-bama-boko-haram
iv https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2008/12/21/sad_end_for_young_refugee.html