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"If Not Now, When?" Three Changemakers Fighting the Good Fight for Syrian Refugees

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This article is featured in the April 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist.

Rabbi Ari Hart

It was after Bronx-based Rabbi Ari Hart had crossed the George Washington Bridge that he realized he had to go to Greece. Not for vacation. He wanted to volunteer on behalf of Syrian refugees arriving, desperate, on the shores of the island of Lesbos.

Hart, a rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, co-founder of the Torah-inspired social justice initiative Uri L’Tzedek and Schusterman Fellow had gone to New Jersey last fall to speak to students at a modern Orthodox high school about what Jewish responses should be to the current refugee crisis.

“I gave a forty-minute talk to 200 Orthodox high school students,” he explained on the phone. “I said, ‘We have to care, we have to be involved,’ but then I asked myself, afterwards, ‘What am I doing?’ I shared articles on social media and maybe donated a little bit of money but I wasn’t doing much. I realized I had to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

For Hart, that walk was fueled by three imperatives: emotional, historical, and religious.

Not to have a gut reaction, an emotional response, to the images and news coming out of this crisis is near impossible, he said. Last summer’s photo of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, who drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach, had “powerful emotional force,” especially for Hart, the married father of a little boy.

“Reading the accounts and watching videos, experiencing the crisis from my computer thousands of miles away, it hit me on a human level,” he said. “I tried to feel the desperation and pain I would experience in that situation. What would it take for me to get on those tiny, dangerous boats and risk my family’s lives for freedom?”

Similarly straightforward was historical motivation to help. Hart’s grandmother fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and, on the other side of his family, his pogrom-fleeing great grandmother was the only surviving member of her family. Running to safety is part of “our national history,” he asserted. “We as a people know what it’s like to flee. We know what it’s like to not have a home. It goes all the way back to the Torah, and our people running out of Egypt.”

As for the religious imperative to help, that, for Hart, was clear as day. As an Orthodox rabbi, he does his best to follow the laws of the Torah. “The law that appears the most times in the entire Torah, way more times than the law of keeping kosher and Shabbat combined, is the law to love the stranger,” he said. “There are a lot of different facets to that mitzvah. There is making converts and there is making those who feel excluded feel welcome in the Jewish community, but there’s also an important facet as defined by our great sages: we have to be very aware of people who are fleeing, who are far from home and who are looking for safety.”

“We’re taught that God is with the stranger, and we have the religious obligation to try to walk in God’s path and to do what we can to love and support those in that situation.”

Resolved to help, Hart headed to Greece over Thanksgiving and embedded there with IsraAID, an Israel-based, volunteer-run non-profit organization that focuses on international disaster relief. Though he has no medical background, he explained to the organization that he would serve as an amplifer—he has a solid social media presence and a community who listens to him. After his return from Greece, he said, he’d share what he saw there with the world and he’d spread word of IsraAID’s critical work.

While in Lesbos, he shadowed a medical and psychosocial team made up of two Jewish Israelis (one a religious American who had made aliyah, the other a secular kibbutznik), a Bedouin woman from the Negev and a Palestinian Christian from Haifa. Hart spoke to refugees, offering them comfort, telling them that people around the world care what happens to them.

“I was trying to share some basic solidarity and support,” he said. The rest of the time he helped carry people ashore—everyone from babies to a 90-year-old wheelchair-bound woman—and passed out food, drinking water, blankets and dry clothes.

And, as a rabbi, he tried “to be present for the volunteers. It’s a very emotional and intense situation, so I was trying to provide some of the volunteers a chance to decompress and share, and to listen to them,” he said. He also shared his experience. Broadly.

“I can’t deliver babies or bandage broken legs, but I do have a platform in my community and in social media,” he said. “I can write and I can do interviews and so I came back and I told this story.”

He saw his trip as a consciousness-raising mission. Several members of his community have started their own plans to go to Greece to volunteer. He also raised $10,000 for IsraAID, and has no plans to stop working on this issue in whatever capacity he can.

“We’re accountable because of our history and because of our spiritual tradition,” he said, and though the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis is felt far less deeply on American shores than on European ones, it’s important not to stop pressing for relief for the millions of people affected by the war in the Syria.

“As Jews, we lobby our senators and our congressman when they visit in our synagogues. This should be a question we ask about. We care about Israel, we care about civil liberties, and we care about refugees. So, nu…what are we doing?”

Photo courtesy of Ari Hart.


Brian Reich

Not everyone appalled by the current refugee crisis buys an airplane ticket to Europe or writes a big check. A select few, like Brian Reich, spearhead national initiatives aimed at getting more Americans to give a damn about humanitarian crises. 

Reich is a co-founder, with Ari Wolloch, of Project Hive, an initiative launched in late 2014 from UNHCR that uses polling, census tools, consumer and other predictive data to identify individuals who could be moved to act on behalf of refugee relief, or some other cause, but have yet to contribute because the messages they receive about the need to help are ineffective.

“The reality is, very few people who could take action are taking action,” he said. Those who give money tend to be older, highly educated, high income and overwhelmingly white. In contrast, Reich has found that non-givers do not see the refugee crisis as something that has a real impact in their lives. It is something bad happening out there—far away. Maybe talk of resettlement has scared them into inaction. Maybe they think the crisis does not affect them.

Project Hive uses data to find “lookalikes”—people in a similar demographic  to those few who have donated or shared a Facebook article but who have not yet expressed any kind of support. “Once you get the lookalike, you can look at the model and say, ‘Who are the persuadables who might take action if given the right opportunity, the appropriate messaging?’ These people are obviously not responding to what’s currently being done, but if we know much more about them, we can change up what we’re doing. We can use that data to break down and tailor what we’re doing.”

Part of that process entails coming up with alternative ways of engagement that will move would-be action-takers, since “the things we’ve been asking people to do—donate or advocacy—are not compelling to them,” leaving the United States categorized as an “under-performing market” in terms of relief, Reich said.

“A big part of what we’re doing and what we’ve found works is to put the refugee crisis through the lens of what Americans care about,” said Reich. “Mass migration is an issue that affects the United States. Climate change is a big thing that will impact a lot of what happens in the United States. We’re not making this argument overtly….The idea is that it is in your self-interest to help refugees and when we make that argument, we see a different response than when we say, ‘there are these people in need.’”

Having made that argument, Project Hive can then open up different conversations with different demographics about the varying ways a person can get involved. Money is not the only answer. There’s public education, community engagement, advocacy that everyone can undertake regardless of age, income and other demographic measurements.

“People want to participate in things they can fix,” he said. “Americans want to feel part of the solution. They want to share expertise. They want to offer time. We have to rebuild the concept of how to help.”

In the short term, that may mean little involvement from people they approach for help for the first time. That’s because Project Hive is, Reich said, “playing the long game.” Any response to an initial solicitation is a door opening, a sign that a person is open to being engaged in conversations about refugees or other crises. And once the door is opened, there’s a great willingness to act later on.

Traditionally in the non-profit world, “there’s this tendency to go with the quick bird in the hand—‘quick, let me get a donation.’ But what we’re seeing in the non-profit sector as a whole is that we’re burning people out,” he said. “All we do is ask for money. Maybe we raise a couple of million dollars. That helps people, but if we develop this relationship better, we might get three times or 10 times the return a year from now or ten years from now.”

“If you asked me how much Hive efforts have raised, I’d say zero because we’re seeking engagement and we feel confident that when people are engaged, and they feel the issue is relevant, they will take more meaningful action and get more people involved. It’s about what we can get the American public to do that is going to ultimately help refugees,” he said.

“There are lots of little pockets of support that exist in the United States,” he said. “On their own they’re doing something important and meaningful, but the potential of all those communities working together and expanding beyond their self-interest and beyond their area of focus is where massive potential lies to make real positive change….There are new refugees every day and so when we look at the influence we could have in exporting our passion, our creativity to other communities, there’s more that we can do.”

There’s more, he said, that we have to do. Project Hive wants to make sure it starts getting done.

Photo courtesy of Brian Reich.


Erin Schrode

“For me to take on an issue, I need to experience it, I need to feel it,” explained Erin Schrode on the telephone from Washington, D.C. earlier this month. She was in the capital for meetings, just after announcing a run for Congress in her home district—California’s second. The tireless 24-year-old is hardly one for half measures. If policy is bad on issues that move her—the environment, for instance, and the refugee crisis—she takes action.

Photo credit: Erin Schrode

Since last summer, that has meant three trips to Greece to gain a better understanding of what Syrians desperate for a new life in Europe experience and to do her best to help them. Before she departed, like most Americans, she had heard news reports about the stream of refugees and saw the images of the newly homeless and stateless, and of the dead.  “How could it possibly be this bad? And if it was this bad, why was there not more government action? Why were there not more NGOs working on this?” she wondered. She needed to know just how bad it was.

And so Schrode went in October with a friend to Lesbos, without a solid plan and without attachment to any relief organization. Driving to the shore on their first day, they were met by a steady stream of refugees walking up the hill.

“I rolled down the window and I said ‘Salam Aleikum,’ and it just lit up their faces,” she recalled. “I felt such an immediate connection. There’s something really important about presence and about honoring human dignity, and that’s absent from a lot of disaster response.” In that moment, she knew exactly why she was there: not only to distribute water or lollipops or blankets—though there was that, too—but to lend an ear, to affirm to those whom she met that they were not forgotten, that somebody regarded them as people.

One man she met who spoke perfect English, and they started talking “about life, about everything from Jimi Hendrix to sports to fashion to how his hair had gotten too long to why his phone wasn’t working properly,” she said. “I ended up going to dinner with him and he texted me later that night and it said something like ‘your presence made all the pain and the suffering of the journey wash away.’”

“That’s not me,” she continued. “That’s someone being there to honor and recognize these people. That’s profound.” Because of her age and because she’s a woman, refugees found her approachable and she made enduring personal connections. She started writing about what she saw and talking about it on television, including an appearance on CNN. A videographer saw her and asked that they return together to film what was going on. And so, at Thanksgiving, Schrode returned to Greece a second time. They found an Iraqi family, with a three-year-old and a five-year-old, whom they befriended and followed through transit camps, to Athens (they took an overnight ferry where “conditions were reprehensible; water was creeping in.”), and on to Macedonia.

“We were there walking all around the bus, talking to people,” Schrode remembered. “They felt that. They felt supported and loved. It’s as if I’m a refugee advocate because I’m able to have the ear of people who maybe otherwise nobody would pay attention to.”

On her third trip, earlier this year, Schrode traveled with the teenaged son of friends of hers who wanted to go. They raised money and bought shoes and socks, particularly for men, since footwear donations don’t tend to include adult male sizes. By February, she found, there was a greater ground relief operation in place and fewer refugees, which meant Schrode could have even more face-to-face interactions.

“I cannot imagine being forced to leave my country without knowing where I’m going, without people to welcome me,” she said. “Think about what it would take for you to feel that this situation is so hopeless that you pay a smuggler to get in a rubber dinghy, what they call the ‘death ride.’ It’s unfathomable to me, and there’s nothing I won’t do to try to alleviate suffering in that situation.”

At the moment, that doesn’t mean getting tickets for a fourth or fifth trip. At least, not yet.

“My role is now on the policy side,” she said. “I’ve come up against broken policy in an acute way in this situation, and we’ve got to do more. Our quota is 10,000, we’ve barely hit four. There’s a lot more we can do in this country.”

Indeed, her decision to run for office and her commitment to social action come straight from her background. She cited Rabbi Hillel’s adage—“If not now, when?”—as the imperative that propels her. Tikkun olam, repairing the world, she said “is a basic tenet of my life.”

“It’s not incumbent on us to complete the work, but we cannot be apathetic as Jews. We have to step in and do something. The time is now.”

Photos courtesy of Erin Schrode.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.