The British Jewish community steps up to the plate to support non-Jewish refugees

Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is rare for organizations from across the UK Jewish communal, denominational and political spectrum to come together to discuss an issue. Rarer still when that issue is not connected to Israel or the safety of the community.
But in September 2015, the community gathered to address the refugee crisis in the wake of the tragic pictures of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. From liberal to Orthodox and from left-wing to right-wing, organizations and individuals from across the entire spectrum came to learn and offer support.
That meeting began a conversation and showed a thirst to act on a social justice issue outside immediate Jewish communal needs that had not been seen for at least a decade, since the Darfur crisis.
Why the groundswell in mobilizing for non-Jewish refugees among the UK Jewish community? The memory of the kindertransport, when Britain took in thousands of Jewish children fleeing the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and Germany, is ever present. The two authors of this article are both grandchildren of Jews absorbed by the UK as part of the kindertransport.
Lord Alf Dubs, who sponsored the amendment to bring unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, was himself saved on a kindertransport.
And act it has. For a small community, British Jews’ contribution to easing the current refugee crisis has been phenomenal.
World Jewish Relief (WJR), the UK Jewish community’s humanitarian agency, launched an emergency appeal which has since raised nearly £1m. This has enabled WJR to provide some of the world’s most vulnerable people in camps in Greece and Turkey with food and shelter. New projects close to the Syrian border are supporting women and children at further risk of exploitation.
WJR is now helping some of the Syrian refugees who have been brought to the UK by the British government. The charity is enabling them to integrate by helping them learn English and find work, using the expertise it has gained from supporting vulnerable Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.
Across London, synagogues run drop-in centers to support refugees and asylum seekers with food, clothing and legal and medical advice.
The Jewish community has found its campaigning voice, too, and is advocating for policy change.
René Cassin, the Jewish human rights NGO, has been working to build an interfaith coalition to change immigrant detention procedures. The UK is the only EU country where immigrants can be detained indefinitely. This is a particularly acute issue. Over the past five years, around 30,000 asylum seekers have been detained annually.
There are signs that René Cassin’s work in highlighting this injustice is paying off. In April, as part of its work in a wide coalition of civil society groups, the charity brought around 80 faith and community leaders to Parliament to lobby policymakers.
Shortly afterwards, the government announced a 72-hour detention limit for pregnant women.
Additionally, René Cassin recently highlighted the 500% increase in court fees for asylum seekers, which made court access all but impossible.
Thanks to these efforts, this government decision was reversed.
Further campaigning has come from The Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) as well as a number of synagogues working with Citizens UK to help unaccompanied refugee children reunite with their families in the UK.
Limmud, too, has responded to this refugee crisis. The annual Limmud Conference, the flagship Jewish learning festival for the global movement, is taking place this week. For the first time, Limmud Conference is devoting a day to this burning issue. An entire track is focusing on refugee and asylum issues.
To reflect the broad nature of the Jewish community’s engagement, speakers include professionals, grassroots activists and first-hand testimony.
Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council will share his perspective along with Syrian refugees who fled their homes and Freed Voices, experts by experience of the UK immigration detention system.
Limmud Conference will host Ahmad Nawaz, a 15-year-old who survived a Taliban massacre in his school in Pakistan, and Mutasim Ali, the only Sudanese national to be granted refugee status by Israel.
Sessions will engage participants through Jewish text, policy discussion, personal testimony, poetry, song and film.
We hope that, by providing as many different entry points and types of session, all participants will go to at least one session connected to refugee issues.
The multiplicity of the Limmud refugee sessions is mirrored in the community where there are multiple organizations and entry points for a British Jew to engage on this issue. Broad coalitions, cooperation and a willingness not to “own” the issue have seen sustained interest from the UK Jewish community.
Limmud’s central ethos is to learn together, while respecting differing beliefs. The organizations curating the refugee sessions have different approaches and priorities for responding to the refugee crisis, but all agree it should be high on our community’s agenda. By working together, we can ensure it remains so for the months and years ahead.
Richard Verber is head of external affairs for World Jewish Relief, the senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and was Limmud Conference co-chair in 2013.
Sam Grant is the campaigns manager for René Cassin, the Jewish voice of human rights.