Think We Should Keep Out Syrian Refugees? You Might Want to Listen to Boston’s Jews

It was a familiar feeling—trying not to sob my way through yet another community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. I fancy myself a sensitive guy, and as far as I’m concerned if you don’t openly weep during ‘Sunrise Sunset’ you haven’t yet tapped into the show’s extraordinary cathartic properties.

Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of Tevye, a devout Jew and father of five in the early 1900s Russian village of Anatevka who struggles to weather the erosion of his deeply held traditions while his family’s safety and status becomes increasingly uncertain amid increasing intolerance from the Czar. Ultimately, the Jews of Anatevka become the target of a Russian pogrom and become refugees, forced to resettle elsewhere within days.

At this particular afternoon’s production at the Footlight Theater in Jamaica Plain, the ubiquitous Fiddler on the Roof had an added air of poignancy.

Outside the theater, U.S. politicians were tripping over one another to be the first to breathlessly malign desperate Syrian refugees as a terrorist threat in the wake of D’aesh’s attacks in Paris. Republican candidates for the nation’s top job urgently joined in a chorus with (primarily) red state Governors to declare our doors shut. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put it, not even Syrian refugee “orphans under age 5” were deserving of our care.

Just as urgently and with reverence to their identities both faith-based and experiential, many among Boston’s Jewish leadership were preparing to mount a full-fledged defense of Syrian refugees, unwilling to let the narrative of a humanitarian and moral imperative be hijacked.

“Many times in the international realm, both as Jews but also as citizens of the world, we have seen when rhetoric blames ‘the stranger’, and spins out of control with terrible, terrible repercussions,” explained Jerry Rubin, Executive Director of Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, an organization that has been serving refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds since the eve of the holocaust in 1938.

At a time when casual xenophobia feels almost commonplace, it should come as little surprise that the voice of reason might come from an organization founded amid the desperate scramble to resettle Jewish refugees fleeing the holocaust. “Accepting Syrian Refugees is the embodiment of both the values and the experience of being Jewish,” said Rubin.

And they’re willing to do the heavy lifting too when it comes to settling Syrian refugees because they’ve been doing it for decades. Rubin, himself the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Belarus and Hungary, estimates that Jewish Vocational Services assists 500 refugees a year from a wide array of ethnic and religious backgrounds with English language instruction, skills training, and job placement services. As many as 20% of those refugees, he noted, are Muslim.

Following the attacks in Paris, Rubin took the unusual public step of issuing a joint statement with Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council decrying the hateful rhetoric aimed at Syrian refugees, inspired by the growing chorus of national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League that were challenging the anti-refugee backlash.

“The collective demonization and fear of the ‘other’ is a notion all too familiar to the Jewish community…” the statement warned. “Guided by our own history as refugees as well as our shared biblical and prophetic mandate to protect and welcome the stranger, the American Jewish community has always been a stakeholder in refugee resettlement and protection, often in the face of vocal efforts to close our borders.”

And for Rubin and others at Jewish Vocational Services, the need to stand up was even more personal.

“We spoke out publicly in part to tell our own refugee clients and our staff here that we believe in them,” explained Rubin. “Our community in Boston is uniquely positioned to rise above our worst fears and move towards our greatest aspirations.”

Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, takes particular pride that Boston’s community was at the forefront of the national refugee debate before the Paris attacks—including successfully spearheading a national resolution of support at the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella policy-making organization for major Jewish organizations across the country—and after the attacks to reaffirm that support.

“It should surprise no one that once again Boston’s Jewish community, informed by our values as Jews and Bostonians, is grabbing the mantle and leading on a defining debate of our time,” Burton said.

This isn’t the first time that Boston’s Jewish leadership has lent their voice to the plight of refugees.

In May of 2014, a few years after my tenure in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, President Obama was seeking solutions to house thousands of so-called unaccompanied minors from Latin America. Jewish leaders in the Bay State were among the first to speak up in support of the Governor’s public insistence that Massachusetts would house them.

“Let us not politicize the fragile plight of petrified souls,” said Rabbi William Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline at a 2014 state house press conference with Patrick and other faith leaders. “May we find a way because we are opening our doors, because we are showing our glowing humanity…to realize our potential as a Commonwealth.”

In Fiddler on the Roof’s lugubrious final moments, Tevye and his family hurriedly depart their village for America.

“Our forefathers have been forced out of many, many places at a moment’s notice,” a villager laments. “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new land, searching for an old familiar face.”

Swallowing hard on another wave of amateur theater-induced emotion, I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined my own great-grandparents.

Martin Goldstein and Ida Lubarsky. Gussie Handelman and Philip Levine. Samuel and Minnie Rosenshine. Louis Berkovitz and Ida Lepkovsky. Tired yet somehow hopeful Russian, Polish and Lithuanian refugees bound for a place that only existed to them in letters, stories, and a faded photograph or two. A place where they would ultimately arrive as strangers and make a home.

America welcomed them a century ago. Today, Jewish leaders are doing their part to continue the legacy of embracing the stranger.


Alex Goldstein is a former press secretary and political adviser to Governor Deval Patrick, and is vice president at Northwind Strategies, a strategic communications firm in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjgoldstein.