Unlocking the Wonder of Life: A Jewish Call to Help Afghan Refugees

Sheberghan, Afghanistan - 1 January 2018: Afghan refugee family are talking and children looking around

Faith-based organizations are often among the first responders to help refugees fleeing their homes during the war and political upheaval, and the current crisis in Afghanistan is no exception. Representatives from agencies including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service, Global Relief, and Catholic Charities, as well as secular agencies like the International Rescue Committee, are working to help Afghan refugees obtain visas and find homes, medical care, and jobs in the United States. 

HIAS, with a mission inspired by Jewish principles and teachings, is one of the oldest of these agencies. Founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS originally focused on Jewish refugees fleeing deadly pogroms and anti-Semitic riots in Eastern Europe. Today, HIAS’ religiously diverse staff and network work to resettle refugees of all faiths from around the globe. During an update on the Afghanistan crisis earlier this week, staff member Raphael Marcus said HIAS has partnered with the Muslim aid agency Islamic Relief in Greece to provide legal and mental health support to the many Muslim refugees fleeing Afghanistan. “This is a very, very exciting partnership,” Marcus said. “We are both very much established, well-known agencies who have worked a lot with refugees. To hear a Muslim and a Jewish organization really speaking out together for refugees is very, very strong.” 

Robert Aronson, 72, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis, is the grandson of refugees helped by HIAS and the current chair of the HIAS board of directors. Interfaith America Managing Editor, Monique Parsons, recently spoke with Aronson about HIAS’ mission, the crisis in Afghanistan, and how Jewish values inspire his work. The conversation has been condensed for clarity. 

Interfaith America: How did you get involved with HIAS? 

Robert Aronson:  Our grandparents came over in the first decades of the 20th century. They were Eastern European Jews. That was one of the real high points of HIAS’ activities, and that got me oriented to the immigrant experience. In college, I was a Russian major, and I went on to get a master’s degree in Russian literature. I went to law school and got a Fulbright to go to Moscow. Later, I got involved locally in the Soviet Jewry movement, and a good friend of mine connected me with HIAS and I joined the board. At that point, I was in my mid-30s. I was the youngest board member by oodles.  

IA: What was HIAS’ mission when you first joined? 

RA: When I joined, HIAS was basically a resettlement agency taking Soviet Jews coming to the United States and integrating themselves into communities, mainly working with Jewish Community and Family Services throughout the country, getting people up and running, vocational training, language training. It was a Jewish agency serving Jews.  

IA: How has HIAS’ mission evolved over the years? 

RA: The next step started in the late ‘90s and extended into the 21st century. HIAS said look, there aren’t enough Jews to sustain a dedicated resettlement agency. We had over 100 years of experience and this marvelous network, and certainly this ethos of helping the vulnerable, so we decided to become a resettlement agency in a nonsectarian way. We started in Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Ukraine. We are in South America. We’re working quite extensively with Venezuelans — that’s the second largest refugee population after Syria. We’re also very active in Mexico and at the southern border. We do a great deal of work with sexual minorities, with LGBTQI populations. We do women’s rights a great deal. We’re also becoming more and more active in emergency response.  

IA: What inspires this work? 

RA: We are very insistent on doing this as an expression of Jewish values, so we’re very Judaically grounded. Most of our staff is not Jewish, and certainly most of our beneficiaries are not Jewish. Most are Muslim and Christian. We work very hard on defining the values of the agency. Our primary dedication is to provide protection to refugees. In the process of doing that, I think for many of the people we serve, we are the first Jews they’ve met or the first exposure they’ve had to Judaism. What a gift to be able to challenge a narrative or revise a narrative.  

It is a corollary and a very beautiful one. 

IA: When HIAS decided to broaden its mission, were there some difficult conversations?  

RA: That’s a great question. I was on the first strategic planning committee that addressed that issue. I think it was the late 1990s. It was a process. HIAS was founded in 1880; you had this incredible history. You could say, in a way, that HIAS achieved its objective: it provided safety to nearly all Jews seeking safety in the United States. If that’s the objective, you could easily say HIAS could fold up its tent and take a very honored position in the history of American Judaism. 

Or you could take the 36 times in the Bible we’re told to protect the stranger and take the experience of the Jewish people of displacement and reinvention and resettlement, and to honor it by continuing the work even if the beneficiaries are not Jewish Those are two very powerful narratives. Was it an easy issue to resolve? No, in all candor, it was not. But as the 21st century has progressed, you have an increase in the refugee population. Today there are over 80 million refugees, the largest number in human history. There are so many contributing reasons to that. As an agency, as well as to some extent a nation, we’ve become more attuned to understanding refugees and that we may have a role to play in providing safety and dignity and protection. I feel very frankly honored that HIAS is doing that.  

IA: What inspires you personally? 

RA: I draw strength and direction from the theological imperative to justice, which is in some sense encapsulated in the 36 times we’re told to help the stranger. I take a lot of strength from the general history of Jews and a more intimate, almost mystical connection to my grandparents. And also the adage, and I think this is Talmudic, that one who saves an individual saves the whole world. Over time it’s become more and more true to me, the power of saving someone’s life if you can, or reclaiming someone’s life. We all have such a finite period on this earth, and to spend it in substandard or degrading or persecuted circumstances, when that’s not what life should be about. If you can unlock the wonder of life, why not?  

RELATED: As vulnerable Afghans flee Kabul, US faith groups prepare to aid them

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.