Jewish Family Services continues its mission despite executive order
By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts (JFS) has a long history of helping refugees from other countries resettle in America.
When JFS began operating in Springfield in 1898, the agency helped to settle Jews arriving from Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, the agency resettled more than 1,000 Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union. And since 2003, they have resettled a number of Somali Bantu, Iraqi, Bhutanese, and Burmese refugees.
“Why are we doing this work? It goes back to our own value system as Jews,” Maxine Stein, president and CEO of JFS told the Jewish Ledger in 2015. “HIAS has been doing this since 1881 and they were formed to protect refugees. We have been rescued as Jews and we need to help others to be rescued because we know what it is like. We have experienced it. We are the Jewish community voice in U.S. refugee resettlement.”
Since October 2014, JFS has welcomed to the Springfield area 15 families and 70 individuals from Syria and seven families and 18 individuals from Sudan – both countries torn by civil wars that have forced tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
But JFS’s work to welcome refugees from these two countries came to a standstill on Jan. 27 when President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning refugees from seven primarily Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Besides Syria and Sudan, the list of countries on the ban included Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
JFS had 13 people scheduled to arrive in the U.S. the week of Feb. 7, said Deirdre Griffin, JFS’s New American Program director. This included children and adults from Sudan, Syria and Bhutan. But when Trump’s executive order was signed they were left in limbo wondering if they would be able to enter the U.S.
“It was certainly our worst case scenario to stop the whole thing because it prevents us from doing our work,” Griffin said. “We had been in conversations with HIAS since the election so we knew it was a possibility.”
Trump’s signing of the executive order on Jan. 27 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – was particularly disturbing to many in the Jewish community.
In a letter to the community, Maxine Stein called the ban and the suspension of JFS’s refugee resettlement program “cruel, un- American, un-Jewish and un-welcoming.”
“Despite the recent executive order, Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts stands firm in our commitment, as a Jewish organization and as Americans, to welcome the stranger and protect refugees, as we have done for decades,” Stein asserted.
HIAS, which has served refugees for more than 135 years, was just as outraged and on Feb. 7 sued the U.S. government over the refugee ban in U.S. District Court in Maryland’s Southern Division.
“We cannot remain silent as Muslim refugees are turned away just for being Muslim, just as we could not stand idly by when the U.S. turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Germany during the 1930s and 40s,” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said in a statement announcing the suit.
“Our history and our values, as Jews and as Americans, require us to fight this illegal and immoral new policy with every tool at our disposal – including litigation,” Hetfield said.
When Judge James Robart from the Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered a stay of Trump’s executive order and ordered that refugees with visas be allowed into the U.S., JFS was able to get back to their refugee resettlement work.
Eleven refugees arrived Feb. 10 – a family of six from Syria, a family of four from Bhutan, and a single person from Bhutan coming to join family members who have already settled in Springfield. At press time, two more people – brothers from Sudan – were scheduled to arrive on Feb. 17.
After that, JFS will have to wait and see what will happen next in the courts. The agency is talking with HIAS weekly “to keep everyone up to date, because the landscape is changing so quickly,” Griffin said. “And it is pretty complex, so we want to make sure we are all on the same page.”
One thing that remains uncertain is how many refugees JFS and other agencies will be allowed to resettle during the rest of 2017.
“Part of the executive order that has not been challenged is the reduction in total numbers of people admitted in the country for the year,” Griffin explained. “It has been reduced from 110,000 to 50,000. I think 36,000 have been admitted to the country already so we have to see how the State Department decides to work with the new reality.”
This comes as the town of Pittsfield was approved in January by the State Department to become a refugee resettlement community. JFS is set to open a satellite resettlement office on Main Street in Pittsfield, to resettle up to 50 people through the rest of this fiscal year, which runs through the end of September.
“The refugee crisis around the world has just really ballooned over the last few years so there are over 20 million people who are refugees looking for a place to go,” Griffin said. “So when President Obama agreed to increase the number of refugees admitted in the country last year, all of the resettlement agencies were asked to assess their capacity, and we just really thought that we were at capacity in Springfield. At the same time we were getting calls from folks in Pittsfield asking us, ‘What can we do? We have a history of resettlement here. We think it would be good for our community.’ And it turned out to be a right fit.”
That office has not been set up yet, and is now in fact part of the state of limbo that JFS is in.
“For this fiscal year, we will have to see what will happen with the remaining 13,000 [refugees] and how they will be distributed. We will have to wait and see.”
Stein reiterated JFS’s commitment to refugee resettlement, despite any executive order or ban.
“Our tradition in this country of welcoming refugees as New Americans is one of the things that has made America great,” she said. “It is a tradition worth fighting for.”
Rabbi Justin David arrested in act of civil disobedience
By Stacey Dresner
Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton was one of 18 rabbis arrested in front of Trump International Hotel in New York City on Feb. 6 for obstructing traffic in front of the hotel.
Rabbi David was attending a three-day conference organized by T’ruah, the rabbinical human rights group, when the protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order occurred.
After marching with a group of about 200 through Manhattan, several of the protesters sat in front of the hotel in an act of civil disobedience.
Rabbi David – wrapped in his tallis – and the others were handcuffed and arrested at 8:30 p.m. They were released from jail at around 1:15 in the morning.
Local rabbis Riqi Kosovske of Beit Ahavah in Florence and David Seidenberg also participated in the protest but were not arrested.
Rabbi David said that deciding to participate in the act of civil disobedience, which he knew could lead to his arrest, was a “process of discernment.”
“It came down to two issues. One is that [the refugee ban] is a profoundly moral issue and an existential issue for Jews. I felt my presence as a rabbi in this action had a kind of deeper moral resonance. And the second issue was [the congregation’s response]. I wasn’t sure immediately, but when I shared this possibility with my community, the community was so uniformly supportive, that I felt that by doing it I would be a conduit or a vessel for everyone. So both of those aspects make it feel like something I was compelled to do.”