SHUSHAN — Area residents concerned about refugees filled the United Presbyterian Church of Shushan Sunday afternoon for a presentation by Maxine Stein, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts. In the presentation, titled “Welcoming the Stranger,” Stein spoke on how her organization aids refugees and how people can help.
Stein’s visit came about because of the shootings last October at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The killer was especially angry at HIAS, a Jewish agency that assists refugees worldwide regardless of faith. Shushan resident Lew Steele felt a need to respond to the killings and reached out the next day to Stein, whose agency is the closest HIAS affiliate.
Although Stein wondered whether anyone would come to hear her, Steele “assured me of an audience,” she said. Sunday’s event, attended by around 100 people, was sponsored by congregations in Shushan, Salem, Cambridge, Easton and Saratoga Springs, as well as the Salem Rotary Club, the Albany Presbytery Immigration Network, the Saratoga Immigration Coalition and the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York.
Worldwide, more than 68 million people have been displaced, Stein said. Less than 1 percent of them are resettled each year. President Obama said the U.S. would take up to 110,000 refugees in 2016. President Trump has slashed that number to 30,000 for fiscal year 2019, the lowest since 1980. Workers in refugee resettlement doubt that even that many will be allowed in, Stein said.
HIAS is one of nine resettlement agencies in the U.S. and the only Jewish agency, Stein said. It began in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, assisting Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. In the 1970s, it broadened its mission to include refugees of other faiths and ethnic groups.
The injunction to welcome strangers occurs 35 times in the first five books of the Bible, Stein said.
“We welcome refugees not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish,” she said. More than 50 percent of JFS’s staff is in its resettlement program. Many were refugees themselves, Stein said. The program benefits from the generosity and engagement of the western Massachusetts community.
“We see immense gratitude from those who have been resettled, as well as profound anxiety” for family members still in peril, Stein said.
Several members of the audience asked how to approach people who are indifferent or opposed to refugees. Stein replied that people are more often uneducated about the issue than actually opposed. People who actively object to refugee immigrants may fear that refugees will take resources from American citizens — jobs, education, social services.
“To be rational with the irrational is really, really hard,” Stein said. Critics may not realize “that their families were immigrants and had similar stories. Sometimes you can do that, sometimes you just have to move on.”
Bringing new refugees to a community requires meeting requirements of the U.S. State Department, Stein said, and would be unlikely in a rural area. However, refugees tend to move out of their first community once they feel more comfortable in the U.S. Communities could set themselves up as a destination for those people, she said.
Stein encouraged her listeners to educate themselves and become involved. “Plug into what’s happening nearby,” she said.
“Do what you’re called to do,” said Pastor Carol Finke, whose church hosted the event. “Step out and be a voice.”