Holidays are a time when efforts to reach out to people of different cultures and religions receive the most attention. However, Arizona Jews for Justice is working to make such social bridge-building a regular occurrence.
But holidays are still a meaningful place to start.
For the second year, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Arizona Jews for Justice, opened his home to a family of Syrian refugees and shared Thanksgiving dinner with them. He connected with the family through a leader in the local Syrian community. Yanklowitz also hosted an undocumented family from Central America.
“We feel that a large segment of the Jewish community in America today arrived with their parents or grandparents as refugees,” said Yanklowitz, who is also the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash. “We feel there is a historical, as well as moral mandate, to really be the first people to welcome refugees when they arrive here.”
There were actually two Syrian refugee families interested in eating a Thanksgiving meal with a Valley Jewish family, so Yanklowitz reached out to Sarah Kader, an attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law and a member of Arizona Jews for Justice. Besides her work with the group, Kader had a personal reason for opening her home to the refugees – her father, David Kader, a professor emeritus at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
“My dad’s parents were Holocaust survivors and my dad’s family actually came as refugees after the Second World War. My dad was born in Germany in a displaced persons camp. They were welcomed to this country after leaving hell on earth,” Kader said. “So, personally, I feel like I’ve had a wonderful life in the United States because my family was welcomed to this country and we should do the same.”
With no other such group in the state, Yanklowitz founded Arizona Jews for Justice more than a year ago to provide a forum for Jews in Arizona to collaborate to foster social justice. The organization’s Facebook group has about 650 members, with a core group of 50 to 75 people meeting frequently to map out strategy on dealing with local and state social justice issues that resonate with the Jewish community. Yanklowitz and other members of Arizona Jews for Justice also participate in interfaith civil rights rallies and vigils.
Interest in the group has accelerated in the aftermath of the recent presidential election and its possible ramifications “for people who are Muslim and other people who don’t feel safe, which includes Jews and people of color,” Kader said.
Among the current top priorities for Arizona Jews for Justice are combating anti-Semitism, helping the Latino immigrant community, and continuing to strengthen relations between the Valley’s Jewish and Muslim communities through a series of dinners in the upcoming months.
“It’s a very scary time and it is an important time to come together,” Yanklowitz said. “This is a good show of unity and to demonstrate that we care about these issues and we are actively willing to partner with other groups to work on these issues.”
As for her family’s personal show of unity, Kader said spending the holiday with the Syrian family was a bittersweet honor.
“The mother’s entire family was killed in Syria. They are not sure if the father’s brother is still alive. They endured the worst and are so glad they are here,” Kader said. “We all should be doing more to embrace those in need, especially those seeking refuge in our country. We hope this inspires others to open their hearts and homes.”
Janet Perez is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.