Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

Shavuot session uses biblical holiday to teach about refugees


The star of the Shavuot liturgy is Ruth, celebrated as the first convert to Judaism. But a late-night study session held by seven synagogues and two Jewish advocacy organizations recast the holiday’s main character as a prototype for today’s refugees, fleeing conflict across Africa and the Middle East.  

The groups met at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) on May 30, the first night of Shavuot, for an evening of learning about Torah — and asylum and immigration policy.

“The American-Jewish community is a refugee community,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement organization, told the crowd of some 350. “And now that we’re in, we owe it to [today’s] refugees to ensure they’re treated the way our ancestors were treated, or the way our ancestors should have been treated.”

A program called “Refugees, Immigration and Jewish Responsibility” drew together members of VBS, Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Isaiah, Adat Ari El, Congregation Kol Ami, Stephen Wise Temple and University Synagogue.

Later on in the evening, the crowd broke up into individual study sessions led by the rabbis of the various synagogues present. Sitting in a circle of some two dozen guests during one of them, VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein connected the theme of refugee relief with the biblical plight of Ruth, whom Feinstein called “the quintessential stranger.”

In the text, the widowed and wandering Ruth, having followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, is redeemed by a Jewish man, who marries her and gives her a son.

Feinstein argued that only through accepting the stranger can the Jewish people bring about their own redemption: Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, from whose lineage the Messiah is prophesied to come.

Hetfield likewise turned to Torah to encourage the crowd to welcome the stranger — a commandment repeated 36 times in the text, he said.

HIAS opened its doors in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe. But in the late 20th century, the stream of Jewish refugees began to recede.

Although the group was “founded to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” Hetfield said, “today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

He noted that in 1939, around this time of year, the passengers on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis celebrated Shavuot before it was turned away from North America and sent back to Europe. Many of the Jewish refugees onboard eventually were murdered by the Nazis.

The incident had a lasting impact on Jews in the United States, as well as its immigration policy.

Hetfield recalled that when he was an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of the State Department, one of his superiors used to say, “Every policy that the United States has should follow one rule when it comes to refugees, and that is, ‘Would this policy have saved the passengers on the St. Louis, or would it turn them back?’ ”

After Hetfield, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a VBS member and co-founder of the anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch, urged those present to take action.

“There’s so much noise and chaos in Washington that this issue will get lost if we’re not constantly reminding them that it matters,” she said, calling on those in the audience to write to their members of Congress to take action on the global refugee crisis.

After her remarks, the crowd met in five groups for text study.

“Tonight, you get an opportunity you don’t normally get,” Feinstein said, “which is to learn with a rabbi who’s not your rabbi.”

The Shavuot holiday, which commemorates the handing down of the Torah, was a fitting occasion to bring together different synagogues, said Rabbi Sarah Hronsky of Temple Beth Hillel, noting that the synagogues gathered “shoulder to shoulder, as if we were at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. What could be more beautiful than that?”

+