It only happened because good people kept saying we have to do something. When congregants at Bnai Keshet the Reconstructionist synagogue I serve asked, "What can we do to help Syrian Refugees," I introduced them to each other and passed on emails from HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). One congregant said, "We have to do something to oppose the current anti-Muslim rhetoric. Christmas is on a Friday this year. Let's invite one of the mosques we have worked with over for a Friday night dinner of Chinese food." I said yes and introduced her to the first congregant.
And then, because of their wonderful efforts I ended up in our sanctuary with about 50 people from 10 Syrian families and about 80 members of my synagogue and community. The room was packed and at every table American Jews and Syrian Refugees were smiling and trying to communicate. Everyone had name tags in English, Hebrew and Arabic and with very few words beyond each other's names, extraordinary warmth and gratitude was expressed.
With the help of an interpreter, I prepared to share with them our own story of this strange night. I began to speak of my own grandfather who paid smugglers and ran across borders at the age of 14 to be reunited with his family. I told our guests that I saw reflections of our own stories in them. That if they were to ask almost any Jewish person they met, they would hear a story of a parent or grandparent who had fled danger to come to the US. That most had arrived penniless. As my own voice caught, I looked at the interpreter a first generation Syrian immigrant herself who had stopped speaking because she was crying. "She said I am sorry but I can't help it." As I looked out I saw a room full of watery eyes.
We all took a deep breath and proceeded to light candles, bless grape juice and challah. Before eating I said a few words about how Christmas can be a lonely day for Jews in the U.S., but that we have developed our own traditions, like eating Chinese food, to help us feel at home. Throughout dinner children played, our guests shared with us their gratitude and their hopes to find work.
At the end of the evening a Syrian man about my own age named Mohamed said through an interpreter. "I am so grateful to be here. I want my children to know that all the sons of Abraham are our brothers. This is not something my children could have experienced in Syria, but they saw it today in this synagogue." I shared my own gratitude that my children had been in a position to welcome them.
We completed our meal with a short blessing in Hebrew, veachalta, vesavata, uverachta ¬- we have eaten, we are satisfied and we offer blessing. Finally, I tried to end the evening with an Arabic phrase I learned earlier in the day, la shurkran, ala wajib - don't say thank you, it is our obligation. It was pointless, we all spent the rest of the night smiling and offering heartfelt thanks to each other.