January 15, 2019

Conservative and Orthodox shuls share in aid to refugees

Tyson Roberts bent over a heap of boxes filled with the debris of everyday life — clothing, kitchen supplies, coat hangers; in short, everything one might need to start a new life — all piled into a corner of a downstairs lobby at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard.

“This is way more stuff than I thought we’d get,” Roberts said, as he lifted one of the boxes onto a plastic kitchen cart.

A few boxes at a time, the pile made its way up an elevator, out to the parking lot and into the back of a U-Haul truck. 

The next day, Roberts drove the supplies to San Diego to donate them to the Jewish Family Service (JFS) there, a nonprofit that assists refugees on the last leg of their long journey by finding and furnishing homes for them.

For months, local synagogues have looked for ways to respond to a global refugee crisis that has displaced unprecedented millions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. After the crisis exploded into headlines and onto television screens last September, the Conservative synagogue formed an ad hoc refugee task force to explore how it could help.

“From the very beginning, we said we’d rather do things right than do things quick,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am’s senior rabbi.

After presentations from HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization, and other refugee support organizations, the synagogue determined that contributing supplies to JFS San Diego was the best way to directly help refugees in Southern California. To amplify its effort, it partnered with B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a nearby Modern Orthodox synagogue on West Pico Boulevard.

Beginning in early July, both synagogues put out a call from the pulpit and in synagogue bulletins for a laundry list of items, starting with school supplies and encompassing items ranging from mops to toothpaste, all needing to be in new or like-new condition.

As the sun set on Aug. 9, Roberts, a political science lecturer at UC Irvine, pulled the 15-foot rental truck into the Temple Beth Am parking lot to collect the items stored there. 

As the truck sat in the lot, Casey Stern, a Temple Beth Am member for more than a decade, pulled in her car with a last-minute delivery: several bags full of tastefully chosen men’s apparel. Her brother, a stylist, gave her the clothing, “so everything is very fashionable,” she said.

“I made sure not to bring any junky stuff,” she said, adding, “They’re going to be starting all over again.”

With the truck about halfway full, Mark Rothman, a B’nai David-Judea member, got behind the wheel to make collection stops at the second synagogue as well as a few house calls. By nightfall, the 300 cubic feet of storage space was full to bursting.

The following morning, Roberts made the drop-off at the San Diego nonprofit on the way to visit his mother and sister, who live nearby. JFS San Diego was able to begin putting the donations to use as soon as that evening, installing a dining set in an apartment where a Syrian family had recently settled.

JFS San Diego is on the ground floor of an international effort to resettle refugees from around the world, with an emphasis, at present, on families from Syria, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At a rate of about 30 a month, it picks up refugees from the airport, helps them apply for government services and employment and finds them housing.

And, as part of the resettlement process, it stocks their new homes with the panoply of necessary conveniences to lead a normal life from Day One. The week of the Los Angeles shipment, it helped resettle 13 families in San Diego.

The refugee issue has long held purchase in the minds of Jews around the world, who, until late last century, were often forced to cross national borders with little or nothing to their names. (For instance, JFS San Diego was originally founded as a refugee support organization for Jews displaced by World War I who showed up at the Mexican-American border.)

So, when the global refugee crisis became front-page news, “It was something near and dear to us,” said Rabbi Pamela Frydman, a B’nai David-Judea congregant who contributed to the L.A. collection effort.

“It’s near, because San Diego is just a short truck ride away, and it’s dear because as a Jewish congregation, we all have families who have fled persecution,” she said.

Frydman, who was an educator and social justice activist in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles in May, said the refugee issue is personally important to her because her parents lost more than 100 relatives in the Holocaust.

She said the commandment in Leviticus not to stand idly by while others are persecuted applies today to places such as the Congo, where nearly 6 million have lost their lives to sectarian conflict since 1994 with little global attention.

“When we say we lost 6 million — they [also] lost 6 million, and barely anybody knows about it,” she said.