Last December, Rabbi Daniel Sher received an urgent request from HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee settlement agency.
Just three months removed from the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent return to power, America’s refugee system had become strained and overtaxed. Feeling the pressure of this surge, the century-plus-old organization—originally founded in the late 1800s to support Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe—was in search of faith-based institutions that could support the resettlement process for Afghan families.
“At first, we weren’t certain that we could pull it off,” said Rabbi Sher of Kehillat Israel, a reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades where he’s served as Assistant Rabbi since 2018.
Compelled to explore the possibility nonetheless, Rabbi Sher met with fellow clergy members Rabbi Amy Bernstein and Cantor Chayim Frenkel to discuss such an undertaking. After crunching the numbers and reflecting on the task at hand, the trio determined that Kehillat Israel—which serves over 850 families on Los Angeles’ westside—could financially support the resettlement of two Afghan families.
“At that moment, the three of us agreed that these people deserved to be here because they all helped our country in the last decade-plus,” Rabbi Sher said.
To bolster the effort, Rabbi Sher partnered with Rabbi Alex Kress, a close friend and Reform leader at Santa Monica’s Beth Shir Shalom. Within one month, the two congregations had submitted a joint application to HIAS and were told to expect both families to arrive within one week.
Within one month, the two congregations had submitted a joint application to HIAS and were told to expect both families to arrive within one week.
In the following days, volunteers established formal “welcome circles,” received specialized training in how to assist refugee families, and raced to provide everything that each family would need for at least six months, including housing, language assistance, resume support, CalFresh EBT cards, and more. Two lawyers with ACLU ties even provided pro bono services to help the families gain permanent legal status.
As word of the two congregations’ efforts to assist refugee families started to spread, support poured in from across the region. Rabbi Sher connected with Omar Qudrat of the Muslim Coalition for America, who met with the volunteers to contextualize the moment. Qudrat—whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan in the 1970s—explained that as important as it was to provide these families with tangible supplies, resettling refugees is a journey that extends far beyond any one material item.
“It was important for us to think about the larger picture because it’s our tendency as givers to want to simply give them everything they need,” Rabbi Sher said. “Being the person to push you into that discovery is not easy, but Omar really helped us remember that the most powerful part of this experience was not necessarily to become their best friends, but to make sure that we set them up for success.”
As anticipation for the families’ arrival had reached an apogee, volunteers were met with disappointing news.
“We got a note saying there were no more families,” Rabbi Sher said. “After we raised the money and found the apartments—even getting them into the same apartment building so they could have a sense of community—we were told that it might be a while.”
Once again, Qudrat was there to put things in perspective, assuring Rabbi Sher and his cohort that there was no shortage of need. Now, everyone just needed to wait.
The holding period didn’t last long, though. Rabbi Sher received an email from HIAS just days later: the first family is coming Saturday. Thirty-six hours after that, another notice—a second family will arrive the same day.
“It was emotional for these groups to get so energized, to then have the very sobering effect of we may not be able to do it at this moment, to now these people are coming in three days,” Rabbi Sher said.
It was at this moment that Rabbi Sher and the welcome circles learned who the families were, creating another opportunity for members of the congregation to rally in support. The congregants intensified their efforts when they learned a new piece of information: One of the families would be arriving with a newborn baby.
Anticipating the challenges of raising a new baby in a new country, Rabbi Sher’s wife, Jen, began texting parents from Kehillat Israel’s preschool to find additional ways to help. Within hours, a group of parents had ordered everything from diapers to strollers to clothing for the newborn and its family.
Several local businesses in Santa Monica also reached out to help the baby’s family, Rabbi Sher said. Pacific Ocean Pediatrics, for example, provided pro bono medical coverage to the families’ children. Cantor Frenkel texted the Karmin family, owners of Ortho Mattress, and asked them if they could help; they donated and delivered new mattresses to the families’ apartments. The Pump Station and Nurtury equipped the newborn’s mother with nursing and childcare necessities.
“It got to a point where you could physically see how much people believed in this, wanted to be a part of this, and were willing to step up,” he said.
In the months since the families’ arrivals, the welcome circles have continued to provide a helping hand to the refugee families. Rabbi Sher credited the volunteers with ensuring the families felt supported and uplifted as they settled into life in Los Angeles and praised the welcome circles’ ongoing work to meet the refugees’ needs.
In the months since the families’ arrivals, the welcome circles have continued to provide a helping hand to the refugee families.
For Rabbi Sher, the most joyful aspect of the experience has been witnessing what he called “an awakening of the soul of the congregation.” The impact is even more profound and meaningful, he said, in light of the recent Passover holiday. In many ways, he said, these families’ escape from Afghanistan in the face of oppression mirrored the Israelites flight from Egypt.
“This is not a new story,” he said. “This is the story that we tell at our Seder tables during Pesach. When it’s ingrained in our identity and we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of another group living through that same story, it becomes incredibly powerful.”