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After Pittsburgh Shooting, Jewish Congregations Vow To Keep Helping Refugees

Demonstrators rally in New York City to mark a National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees in New York.
Julie Jacobson
Demonstrators rally in New York City to mark a National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees in New York.

Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., is one of many Jewish congregations across the country that have been helping to resettle refugees in America.

Three years ago, its members agreed to sponsor a Muslim refugee — a single mother named Tilko who fled Iraq with her children and who was originally brought to this country by a Christian charity.

Tilko asked not to be identified by her full name because she fears for her safety.

The petite, soft-spoken woman said that back in Iraq, people didn't talk much about Jews. "But whatever little I heard was all negative," she says, sitting on a sofa in the living room of a congregation member recently, recalling the sorts of things people in her native country would say about Jews: "They are bad. They're mean. They are not helpful."

So when she arrived in this country and met the Jews who had volunteered to help her begin a new life, it erased all of her preconceptions.

"I was just taken aback," Tilko says. "For a second, like wow! The way they greeted me with the love and the respect, the way they just embraced me."

"I realized it was all lies, what they said about Jews," she says.

Over the holidays, Tilko got together with the people who, over the past three years, had helped her rent an apartment, get a green card and find a job.

A biblical mandate

For Jews across America, volunteering in this way is about following the Torah's injunction in Leviticus 19:34 to remember that their ancestors, the ancient Israelites, were strangers in Egypt and so they must treat the stranger equally and "love him as yourself."

Certainly no one at Rodef Shalom thought doing that could be controversial, let alone dangerous.

But then two months ago, on Oct. 27, as Sabbath prayers were getting underway at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a gunman killed 11 people.

Everybody who comes to America deserves the same opportunities that our ancestors had.

The previous weekend, that congregation had participatedin a "National Refugee Shabbat" sponsored by the Jewish aid group HIAS, which resettles people fleeing Syria and other trouble spots.

On social media just hours before the shooting, the suspect had written that he was targeting that particular congregation because of its affiliation with HIAS, which he said "likes to bring invaders in that kill our people."

"That statement really hurt," says Rodef Shalom volunteer Susan Levy.

It's important to her to help refugees "no matter what background they come with," says Levy. "Everybody who comes to America deserves the same opportunities that our ancestors had."

Levy says America welcomed her own grandmother when she fled pogroms in Russia, so after Tilko arrived in this country, she helped her get settled here by accompanying her to job interviews. "I have a background in HR so I knew the language to speak," she says.

Volunteers from the synagogue made all the difference when they helped the children with their homework, says Tilko's 15-year-old son, Yahya. "When we came here first our math was very bad, and they helped us. Now we have an A in math and our grades are very good."

Helene Lederer also helped the family with paperwork. Her own children are grown now, so she was able to help the family navigate school administrative matters and fill out other forms.

To her, aiding the stranger is a fundamental part of being Jewish, and no amount of anti-Semitism will change that. "They can hate us for that if they want," she says. "But that is who we are."

After the synagogue helped Tilko and her family settle in Northern Virginia, Muslims from a local mosque were introduced to the refugee family, says Lederer. And after the Pittsburgh shooting, members of that same mosque came to a vigil at Temple Rodef Shalom to stand with Jews against anti-Semitism.

To the volunteers, that gesture was a blessing — brought forth by this congregation's effort to "love the stranger as yourself."

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Corrected: December 26, 2018 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled a reference to Susan Levy's last name as Levie.
Jerome Socolovsky is the Audio Storytelling Specialist for NPR Training. He has been a reporter and editor for more than two decades, mostly overseas. Socolovsky filed stories for NPR on bullfighting, bullet trains, the Madrid bombings and much more from Spain between 2002 and 2010. He has also been a foreign and international justice correspondent for The Associated Press, religion reporter for the Voice of America and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. He won the Religion News Association's TV reporting award in 2013 and 2014 and an honorable mention from the Association of International Broadcasters in 2011. Socolovsky speaks five languages in addition to his native Spanish and English. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduate degrees from Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a sculler and a home DIY nut.
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