Ask the Rabbis // Refugees

By | Nov 18, 2015

What is our responsibility as Jews toward Syrian refugees?


Offering refuge to those who flee circumstances of abuse is a fundamental principle of Torah. It was unquestionably revolutionary, especially in the period of history during which the Torah emerged. Harboring runaway slaves was a crime in 19th-century America. Yet more than 3,000 years earlier, Jewish law demanded it. You were obliged not only to offer refuge to runaway slaves but to set them up in your guest room and care for them (Deuteronomy 23:16-17).

The Torah also mandated Cities of Refuge: places where someone who killed unintentionally could flee and be safe from blood vengeance until they could be judicially vindicated—unheard of anywhere, even today. But in ancient Israel we had six actual cities set up across the land for this purpose alone (Numbers 35:11-15 and Joshua, Ch. 21).

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The question of refuge for those fleeing Syria requires cautious consideration, for it is regrettable that the majority of the culture they represent has been reared on religiously inspired anti-Jewish slander and propaganda. Hundreds of Jewish women, men and children have suffered tragically and fatally at the hands of members of that culture, not to mention the current murders occurring right under our noses in the heart of Israel. We have an obligation by Jewish law to prevent endangerment to others, and we are culpable if we don’t (Talmud Bav’li, Sanhedrin 57a-b).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA


Who will speak up and who will remain silent? Who will lead the charge and who will test the winds before responding? Who will frame their pleas in Jewish-centric language—full of biblical quotes and allusions to our own familiar refugee history—and who will speak up with no need for these citations, since this is, after all, a tragic and devastating humanitarian crisis that transcends any one particular nation, group or religion?

I have to admit that I am bothered by the way the question is framed. Surely, our response to any tragedy of this magnitude ought to be driven by our instinctive human responsibility. What if, for example, we did not have a “Jewish parallel” from our memory bank to draw on? How many devastating floods or hurricanes have we literally experienced as a Jewish people? Should we sit those particular crises out? Of course not. We will and should respond because it is the right and humanitarian thing to do, and if it happens to have a Jewish proof text to “legitimize” the response, that is icing on the cake.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY


Fully 36 times, Torah calls us to help “the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger.” Refugees of war-torn Syria, fleeing the violence of religious and tribal warfare, are all of these. As Jews, we must help: Jews bear history’s imprint of the homeless refugee and have been collective victims of political barbarism. For Jews not to help is to betray our history and miss a chance to redeem our own suffering: We are to love these people, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

It is doubly incumbent on Jews to aid our Syrian cousins. Who better to ease suffering brought by religious extremism than Jews, whom Syria’s warlords would murder if they could? What better vehicle for heart-healing and world-healing pluralism than for Jews, as Jews, to aid Syrians?

Maimonides taught that the highest form of tzedakah (charity) is to help another find a job so that one breaks free of needing charity (Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim 10:7). Maybe even higher than charity that unshackles another economically is charity that unshackles another spiritually—charity that not only meets gripping economic need but also loosens the grip of hatred and bigotry. Let that be the Jewish response to Syria’s refugees.

Rabbi David Evan Markus
Temple Beth-El
City Island, NY


When Hagar and her son Ishmael were banished from the house of Abraham and Sarah to the wilderness, in danger of dying from thirst and looking for refuge, “God heard the voice of the boy” and saved their lives. The name “Hagar” contains the Hebrew word ger, which means a stranger, a sojourner—we might even say a “migrant.” Moses was also a ger when he fled for his life from Pharaoh and was taken in by a Midianite priest. He named his son “Gershom,” for, he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

As Jews and as human beings, we have a sacred responsibility to the Syrian refugees and all refugees. We don’t have to go back to Egypt to remember that we have been in the same boat, so to speak. The St. Louis in 1939, carrying more than 900 Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, was turned away from Cuba and the United States. More than 80 percent of Americans at that time opposed relaxing the immigration restrictions to save Jewish refugees facing almost certain death. Learning both from our Torah and our history, Jews should be at the forefront of advocating for the admission of Syrian refugees in the countries in which we live, and we should support our organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee and others that have been leaders in this work.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA


“If I am only for myself, what am I?” These words of Hillel ring in my ears today as we consider the Jewish community’s responsibility to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. This is not the first time we have faced this question. In the Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, segments of the Jewish community joined together to sponsor and bring refugee families to their communities, providing support for years, even decades. We saw it as our responsibility to help the stranger and those in need, to offer a safe haven and home to those escaping danger.

Each morning, Jews around the world pray, “Praised are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who lifts up the fallen.” As God’s partners in perfecting the world, we have an obligation to assist God in the work of lifting up those in need, aiding refugees who are in search of safety and new homes to call their own.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA


Jewish tradition makes it clear that we are obligated to help the downtrodden and those in danger. In addition to the biblical commandment to love the stranger, we know what it is like to be expelled from the place we called home. All four of my grandparents fled a hostile European environment to find a haven in America. As a result, we Jews should feel a special obligation to consider the refugees’ needs.

However, this obligation is not absolute. We are also commanded to remember Amalek’s surprise attacks. The Torah is clear that we must protect our material and physical security from Amalek and his descendants. The profound challenge to world Jewry is to determine whether these refugees are our enemies who have been taught to hate Israel and all Jews or innocent men, women and children who are trapped and seeking asylum. We cannot ignore the dire situation of innocent people, yet we must be careful not to put ourselves in harm’s way by allowing those who seek to destroy us to find asylum in our home. Jews should financially support humanitarian relief efforts for the Syrian refugees. Jews who live in countries where these refugees are attempting to find a home should support limited and careful efforts to shelter and care for those who have been vetted, particularly where children are involved.

Israel, which is still in a state of war with Syria, should not be expected to absorb any Syrian refugees. I am proud that Israel has offered humanitarian relief to those in need.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


The Torah teaches that all humans are in the image of God and calls on us to repair the world to uphold their dignity and give them access to life’s necessities. In 1979, a quarter of a million boat people fled Vietnam. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin cited the abandonment of Jewish refugees during the Shoah, and Israel was among the first countries to take in the refugees. This was a Kiddush HaShem—a sanctification of God’s name internationally.

If I were the prime minister of Israel, I would offer to take in a proportionate share of Syrian refugees—say, 5,000 to 10,000—and resettle them on the West Bank in Area C lands still controlled by Israel. This step would speak more powerfully than words as to Israel’s humanitarianism and its respect for all humans regardless of race, religion or nationality. It might well be opposed or even sabotaged by Arab groups. That would only make clearer to the whole world how, for a century, anti-Zionism and hatred of Jews have translated into policies that harm Arabs and degrade their societies.

What if the refugees return such kindness with hostility and anti-Israel activity? That is a risk worth taking as we search for future peaceful alternatives in the Middle East. It would parallel the current Israeli treatment of wounded Syrians in hospitals in northern Israel. This is being done without any guarantees because it is the right thing to do. I can’t help believing that the policy is having a positive impact on the Arab public as word gets around of Israel’s humane behavior in the midst of a maelstrom of civil war and cruelty.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


After three generations post-Holocaust of asking our children rhetorically, “Where was the world when the nations shut their doors in our faces?” we certainly have a responsibility. Not to own up to it would be somewhere between irresponsible and hypocritical. That said, there’s nothing wrong with discharging responsibility responsibly. To throw open our doors willy-nilly without a plan of whom we can best serve, and how we can integrate them into America, is silly and ill-advised. We should differentiate between genuine refugees and migrants, with much more responsibility to the former than the latter. We have every right to protect ourselves from criminal and extreme religious elements that might be embedded within the populations we seek to welcome. Lastly, the idea of triage, both in saving lives and in charity, is not foreign to us as Jews. We have a set of principles that describe to whom our moral obligation directs us first, and who can best benefit from our largess when there are limited resources. I would argue on a number of counts that Jews should get behind giving priority treatment to persecuted Christian communities of Syria and Iraq, who will have no place to return to even if a political solution redraws the map of the Middle East.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA


When Chabad of Milan established Beteavon here in 2013, the first kosher soup kitchen in Italy, our goal was to provide hot, fresh and free kosher meals to those in need. I can’t say we knew that 1,000 refugees of war and poverty, many of them Muslims from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Syria, would soon be pouring through our city daily. But since the influx began, we, together with the wider Jewish community of Milan, have thrown ourselves into sheltering and feeding these hungry and tired souls. Today, there are close to 50 African and Syrian refugees sheltered at Milan’s Holocaust memorial, eating fresh meals provided by Beteavon daily.

The religion or nationality of the refugees never crossed my mind. Helping people in need is something we simply need to do. Although there may be valid concerns about wider issues—the root of the crisis or risk of extremist infiltration—we choose to focus on what we can do to help unfortunate people in our city.

Conversely, many people like to join the latest cause célèbre, but the Jewish community needs to look into its own backyard as well. What has been done for Jewish refugees from Ukraine, or our own poor and needy brethren? We are happy to aid refugees passing through our city, and I believe it is a Jewish imperative to do so. But as we discuss aiding all those in need, we must never forget our fellow Jews who could benefit from some of our moral outrage—and help.

Rabbi Yigal Hazan
Milan, Italy

8 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis // Refugees

  1. I.F. Chodikoff says:

    I am a Canadian, an American, and a Jew. I would like summarize to our rabbinical scholars what all this has to do with helping Syrian refugees:

    As a Canadian I am proud of the fact that our new federal government has made a pledge to bring in 25,000 refugees by December 31st. Every year, Canada absorbs 250,000 migrants so this additional 25,000 is certainly a significant but not an impossible task to undertake. The media’s reaction along with many politicians are mixed but generally positive. Reassuring! Canadians want to feel as though they can contribute something positive to healing this planet of ours. There are also Canadians fearful that terrorists will be amongst the 25,000. The government is adjusting its admission criteria to mitigate this fear–and real possibility. However, the chances of having terrorists already living amongst us is a more likely scenario, as the attacks in Paris on November 13th have revealed. As a Jew, I am proud that Canada is working hard at reducing the spread of hate by offering 25,000 souls an opportunity to begin a new life.

    As an American, I feel embarrassed by the exceptionally high level of fear, racism, anti-Muslim, anti-humanist, selfish and fearful sentiment being expressed in the media and by politicians. I believe that it is a far more cost-effective gesture to admit more Syrian refugees to the United States than to support additional military force in the Middle East. I am certain that it is far cheaper to bring 20,000 Syrian refugees into the “US tent” than expending military resources on unconfirmed targets, or spending money on training, bribing and financially influencing a network of false leaders or key individuals in the Middle East who may turn against the interests of the US, Americans, and Westerners–if not out of hatred to the West, then to simply fuel their own selfish interests. As a Jew, I cannot support the spread of hatred and bias towards innocent people.

    And as a Jew, I have faith in Judaism but not necessarily all people, Jewish or otherwise. There are bad Syrian refugees. There are bad Muslims. There are bad Jews. And there are bad people! This is why we have a justice system and this is why we happen to have armies. This is also why we have faith. I am someone who has faith in the concepts of democracy, pluralism and multiculturalism. As a Jew, I am committed to the importance of helping others in need.

  2. Martin says:

    Why did the rabbis say everything would be OK during the Holocaust?

    1. Jerry Newman says:

      Martin, why is that your focus? It was not just the Rabbi’s who did not see the horror that was to come. Many Jewish intellectuals, merchants and other Jews denied that the German people and the peoples of other nations would commit the horrendous acts that followed. So why focus on the Rabbis?

  3. I am deeply touched by the soulful responses from the rabbis that express the deepest of Jewish values. Taking the highest ground of morality expresses the willingness to accept that there is always pain, anxiety and doubt that will be experienced on the way to peace. This is the role modeling that assures us that our children will be strong in taking on the commitment to the living a Jewish life of compassion.

  4. Ted Pailet says:

    Certainly, I am not the only one with mixed feelings about this all-of-a-sudden crisis. It seems to me there is little comparison between the biblical “strangers” and the president-day Syrian refugees. These Syrian refugees are not a few hungry, thirsty, ill-clad,camel-backed travelers passing through our camp.
    By-the-way, what are the oil-rich neighbors doing to help them? What is Israel doing?
    Poor Europe will never be the same. I’m glad I went there when I did.

  5. Stanley Blumberg says:

    Unfortunatley realty rules the roost.On Long Island N.Y, our congressman a Democrat cast a vote with some of the most reactionary
    house members,I’m sure to placate equally reactionary Jewish consfttuentd.Steve Israel abandoned the moral high ground.and
    not for the first time,following the lead of that other ,profile in courage Chuck Shumer..It is time overdue that we stop deferring
    to States who consistently act in ways that undermine American interests.We have been in this country in significant numbers for
    about 150 yeats,in that time due to hard work,a love affair with education,and a welcoming environment we have achieved as much if
    not more than any other ethnic,or religious group.Given the history of the twentieth century,for Jews of all people to support restraints
    on other victims of wars,and oppression is unacceptable.

  6. philip mann says:

    The Syrian government sheltered Alois Brunner, the nazi fugitive. They also expedite arms to Hezbollah and support that movement, and they are now a puppet state of Iran.

    Having said all that, the people are simply victims and should be helped. Maybe it would be quite a gesture if Israel were to admit some into their own territory. But they are not obliged in any way to do so. A state must be cautious, especially when considering people sworn to destroy it. All other countries should admit who they please, they don’t have the bad blood that marks Jewish- Arab history.

  7. Hannah says:

    This is a difficult issue. I deeply resent all that attempt to draw parallels between the genocide committed on Jews during the Holocaust and the migrant and refugee issues of today. Other than instances such as the attempts of Muslims to decimate Christian and other minority groups in Muslim countries, they are different situations.

    Syria is essentially in a civil war. Many innocent civilians are in harms way there and need help but they are not for the most part victims of genocide. Many could and should be taken in, at least until the situation in Syria stabilizes, by other Muslim majority countries in the ME. Calls for Israel, the only Jewish state, already dealing with its own Muslim crisis to take in Syrian Muslims is to my mind nuts. That Jews would call for such a thing or defend it is suicidal.

    Western countries should heed the impacts of unchecked migrant and “refugee” immigration on Europe. If the US, Canada etc. want to admit refugees it should properly vet them. Many of the so-called “refugees” who entered Europe during the recent waves of entry were young men who were seeking economic opportunity, not refugees fleeing for their lives.

    As well while Jews should be charitable and assist those in need, it always puzzles me that Diaspora Jews tend for the most part to donate to everyone else but Jews. There are many low income families in need in Israel. There are many low income Jews in the US needing assistance. Yeshivas and other Jewish institutions need help as well. Syrians may be the trendy new thing but it would be nice if we also remembered those of our own community in need.

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