American Jews helped bring in Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe before, during and after the Holocaust. We stood side by side with African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We worked to secure the freedom of Jewish refuseniks from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s. And we continue this tradition today with our efforts to support refugees from all over the world who have fled persecution and death and are now making Pittsburgh their new home.
At the same time, each of us has recently been asked why our organization continues to help refugees today. The inferred message is, “Aren’t there Americans you could be helping?”
The easy answer is yes, there are, and yes, we do. While we resettle around 200 refugees per year, we serve more than 10,000 members of our community over the same time period with counseling, food assistance, career development, elder services and more.
But the real answer is complex. Why should we, or this country, take in and assist refugees?
As Jews, we are familiar with the Torah’s commandment: You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19). We are called to recognize our universal humanity and to personally act with empathy gained from centuries of experience as refugees. How can we watch the news and not feel the weight of the tragedy of those assaulted by war, famine and persecution?
We have both witnessed again and again how fear can drive our thoughts and behaviors. And lately, we have seen our collective fears being fueled and directed in a way that drowns out reason and empathy.
The scale of this fear has been recently amplified and churned up by prejudice and falsehoods. Refugees and immigrants benefit our nation and our community. They replenish our waning population, bring young families to an aging region, work hard, pay taxes, show extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit and employ people. On a less measureable but equally critical level, they add diversity, enrich culture and refresh our own thinking about ourselves and our world. This thinking is imperative for minds — and countries — to grow.
Refugees are the most rigorously screened people who enter our country through a process that takes a minimum of two years. From decades of working closely with thousands of refugees, it is clear they are fleeing violence — not causing it. As we help them find housing and work and become self-sufficient, we learn over and over that the vast majority of people in the world are just like us: They work, they raise children and they want to live in peace.
Humans are tribal. Without our conscious commitment to do otherwise, we naturally take sides. We are us, and they (whoever they happen to be) are them, whether refugees from foreign lands, people from a different political party or practitioners of a different faith. From friendly football rivalries to killings inspired by antisemitism, “us vs. them” is deeply embedded in the human condition. Jews in particular have learned that when the government begins to frame national security in such terms, the consequences can be deadly.
Policies that stoke xenophobia do not just hurt refugees, who are already often victims of unspeakable horror. And they don’t just hurt our nation, though we have already seen an increase in anti-Semitism and other hate crimes over the past year. This approach condemns our future. Our entire planet is struggling with serious problems that need great solutions. Scapegoating others and feeding division make it a longer walk back to decency, tolerance and collaboration.
In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. We urge our national leaders to do what is right and just by refugees and immigrants. Fortunately, times of rampant fear also provoke acts of courage. We are called to welcome the stranger, those from foreign lands and those we rarely interact with here at home. Our future depends on it.
Jeffrey D. Freedman, Ph.D., is board chair of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh. Jordan Golin, Psy.D., is the agency’s president and CEO.