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Rosh Hashanah and Syrian Refugees

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

The most oft-repeated special prayer of the High Holidays is the Uv’chen, three paragraphs repeated twenty two times over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a remarkably uplifting prayer, given its authorship by Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri during a time of vicious Roman oppression in the Second Century. It anticipates the flourishing of first, all humanity, then Israel, and then the righteous during a future era of universal peace. This progression is understood to mean that only when all the world enjoys security and dignity, can Israel and the righteous live freely. The message of this prayer, especially given its provenance, is that even within the darkness and violence of this world, we can find and foster compassion and enlightenment. M’lo chol ha’aretz K’vodo. All the world is full of G-ds’ glory. Three are holy sparks everywhere.

As we prepare to join in community and prayer on Rosh Hashanah, images of desperate Syrian refugees fill our TV and home computer screens. Over eight million Syrians have fled from their homes. Some are internally displaced, some linger in teeming refugee camps in neighboring countries, and some wander desperately. According to many experts, this is the largest refugee crises since World War II. Several thousand Syrian refugees have already died, and many, especially children, face illness, injury, exploitation, and possibly, death.

I am aware that these are people who were raised to despise Jews and to dream of the destruction of the Jewish state. They may include former soldiers and terrorists with innocent Israeli blood on their hands, and certainly the children and grandchildren of those killers. There is also a clear danger that ISIS and other terrorists will exploit this exodus and attempt to infiltrate and undermine Western societies.

However, as Jews, we are obligated with the Mitzvah of Hatzala, rescue, active intervention whenever even a single life is at stake, let alone millions of lives. There is no “Good Samaritan” law in Halacha because Jewish tradition doesn’t see this intervention as heroic or exceptional. It is what a human being should do when another is mortally threatened. In three days we will read the story of G-d’s rescue of the lad Ishmael, who is dying in the desert after his banishment from Abraham and Sarah’s home. The Midrash imagines that the angels then protest, arguing that the descendants of Ishmael will be vicious anti-Semites. G-d responds “And what is Ishmael right now, righteous or wicked?….According to his present deeds, I will judge him.”

My children are alive today because organized groups of people, “conspiracies of goodness,”mobilized to save the lives of their grandmother and her sisters in Nazi Europe. I am very proud that today Jewish organizations across Europe are mobilizing for Syrian refugees. In England, World Jewish Relief, founded seventy years to rescue Jewish children from Nazism, is raising funds for Syrian refugees. Our sister Masorti (Conservative) Synagogue, the North London Synagogue has set up a drop in center that provides legal services, medical treatment, counseling, food and clothing. In Italy and Germany, Jewish groups are channeling funds raised by international Jewish agencies to house, feed and otherwise support the newcomers. Even in the Arab word, in Jordan, at Za’atari, a refugee camp of about 85,000 residents, much support comes from international Jewish organizations. Israeli medical personnel, mostly through the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, have treated about 2000 Syrians injured in the fighting.

We in America can do no less. I urge you to be in touch with Jewish groups advocating for the Syrian refugees. I call your attention especially to two efforts:
Under the auspices of the Joint Distribution Committee, 24 Jewish organizations have joined to form the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which has raised funds for regional efforts to provide critical medical care, resettlement, trauma relief, and recreation and education for children. Visit

Also, I endorse the Syrian refugee program of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest refugee relief organization in America, founded 130 years ago. HIAS is now focusing its organizational efforts on the Syrian crisis, especially by pressing our government to take a leadership role. Visit to find out more about the current HIAS campaign. If you wish, HIAS will provide you with regular updates about this crisis, and ways that you can help its victims. In particular, I ask that you sign on to a petition on the HIAS website, urging President Obama to increase American humanitarian aid to the region so that the poorest, least mobile refugees still close to Syria can get food, water and medical care, and to re-settle 100,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, so that they can live in security and freedom.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, recently wrote: “A strong humanitarian response on the part of Europe and the international community would constitute the clearest evidence that the European experience of two World Wars, and the Holocaust have taught that free societies, where people of all faiths and ethnicities make space for one another, are the only way to honor our shared humanity.”

Shana Tova Um’tuka, a sweet, prosperous and fulfilling year to you and your families,
Rabbi Weintraub

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