Heartbreaking images of men, women and children risking everything for a better life continue to dominate the news as well over 500,000 migrants and refugees have entered the European Union in the first eight months of this year alone.
In the face of such a serious humanitarian crisis, it is not surprising that religious organizations have responded with efforts to help the newly arrived populations. Pope Francis urged every Catholic parish to take in a family, and the Muslim charity Islamic Relief is also active in the region. However, no religious group has responded with more passion and sense of identification than the Jewish community.
In Milan, the Jewish commitment is made plain in the ongoing work at the Milan Holocaust Memorial where thousands of migrants and refugees have found a safe, free place to spend the night. The memorial, which opened just two years ago, is located under Milan’s central railway station and was the location where Jews were warehoused and ultimately sent to concentration camps. Earlier this summer, when people began to arrive in Milan, Ferruccio De Bortoli, who serves as Chairman of the Board of the Memorial wrote to his Vice-Chair Roberto Jarach wondering what they could do to help.
Since that day, over 3,500 migrants and refugees have spent the night in the memorial where 40 makeshift beds have been placed and where food is brought over by other Jewish and Christian groups. The memorial serves as a much-needed sanctuary for those who have just arrived from the south and who are moving on to their ultimate destination, wherever that may be.
“Some arrive with salt still on their skin from the sea,” explained Jarach, who spoke to The Huffington Post from Milan. “They have traveled two days and are suspicious and fearful. But we provide dinner, a bed and breakfast and we even turned one of the toilets into a shower. The atmosphere is very good. While it is mostly men, we sometimes have up to 19 children at a time.”
The Milan Holocaust Memorial is still under construction and looking for funds to complete the project, but already inscribed in the entrance is the word “Indifferenza" which provides the reason as to why they have taken such a pro-active stance towards welcoming the arrivals.
“How could we not respond?” asks Jarach, “What happened to the Jews in this place happened because of indifference.”
In the wider Italian Jewish community the reaction has been just as strong. Renzo Gattegna, President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities proposed to dedicate the European Day of Jewish Culture on Sept. 6 to the newly arriving people stating:
“That part of humanity, innocent and defenseless, who is forced to a desperate escape from his homeland to save the life of their own and of their children. Welcoming and the respecting other faiths and cultures dates back to the very origins of Judaism”
The group is also dedicating the next issue of their magazine Pagine Ebraiche to the crisis and the Jewish value of assistance.
Germany has taken in an enormous share of the arrivals, with promises of taking 500,000 refugees a year over the coming years. One refugee shelter house located in Berlin has a similar historical resonance to the one in Milan. Housed in a wing of a Catholic Hospital, the center is next to a Jewish High School and a former Jewish home for the aged, both of which were used by Nazis as a gathering point for deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
Rabbi Gesa S. Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue explained the history in an email to The Huffington Post, recounting that the Catholic nuns tried as best they could to help hide Jews who escaped from the Nazis.
Today, Jewish and Catholic groups are collaborating on creating a center that would show new refugees to Germany that they were welcome and Jewish volunteers are setting up sleeping areas, creating play spaces for children, donating clothing and offering German lessons.
Rabbi Ederberg’s synagogue has been engaged in interfaith collaboration for years and runs a kindergarten in partnership with a Muslim and a Christian congregation. Ten years ago, during the huge influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ederberg published a handbook entitled “Learning German with Jewish Content” for the new arrivals. The purpose of the handbook was “to integrate them into the local communities, provide basic Jewish knowledge, and most important, language skills, both general and Jewish.” She is now in conversation with her Muslim partners to create a similar book for new Muslim arrivals.
Rabbi Ederberg stressed that what they were doing was not unique: “There are many synagogues helping migrants across Germany and the Central Welfare Organization of Jews in Germany has been active in speaking out for welcoming the new immigrants.”
In the UK, Jewish groups seeking to help the current crisis have invoked the spirit of the Kindertransport, which brought Jewish children out of Nazi Germany into Britain between the years 1938 and 1940. Two of the surviving Kindertransport children joined a delegation sponsored by the group Tzelem: The Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK that handed a letter to Prime Minister Cameron at Ten Downing Street on Sept. 21, urging him to offer asylum to at least 10,0000 migrants into Great Britain.
The letter, signed by 105 Rabbis and Cantors from across the Jewish community, asked Mr Cameron to take the story of the Kinderstransport as his inspiration in responding to the refugee crisis, saying “the light of human kindness that shines into the darkest corners of history.”
One of the organizers behind Tzelem is Rabbi Jeremy Gordon of the New London Synagogue. In a recent Rosh Hashanah sermon Gordon wrote:
“We are in danger of forgetting that we are the people who are supposed to have the deepest understanding of the life of a Fiddler on the Roof; understanding the way in which people flee the country of their birth because staying is just too horrible a fate to wish upon our children is the deepest insight of our Jewish national memory. Loving the stranger is our central ethic. This is what it means to be a Jew.”
Jews are also sometimes the first people that migrants and refugees meet when they arrive on European shores. Shay Zavdi, who works for the American Jewish Committee and is based in Jerusalem, has been greeting boats on the island of Lesbos in Greece working with IsraAID, the Israeli humanitarian organization.
The boats, meant for 15 people, often come laden with 40 or 50 people whose country of origin include Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. Zavdi and other Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers meet the boats and offer the new arrivals medical attention, clothing, water, food, maps and direction to the nearest refugee camp.
Zaydi explained the reaction of the refugees to the welcome, and also when they realize who some of those people are in a piece for The Huffington Post called The Way for New Life Starts with Unexpected Help.
“Refugees are surprised of what they see. They are just as much surprised to find that the people waiting for them and helping them are Jewish, and not just Jewish -- but from Israel. One of them was from Iran. After receiving food from me, he asked me where I was from, and upon hearing my answer, he shook my hand in gratitude.”
The backdrop to the current refugee crisis in Europe is both deeply rooted Islamaphobia as well as a disturbing rise of anti-Semitism.
When asked if they were concerned that the influx , the majority of whom are Muslim might cause unfortunate tension between the Muslim and Jewish populations, Rabbi Ederberg had a pragmatic answer:
"We need to raise awareness, be proactive, work with all our partners in the civil society, and then we will be successful: (in welcoming the migrants into German society). The refugees are re-learning their entire life and circumstances, so why not make sure that they are also re-learning about Jews? There is lots to do!"
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