On February 12, sleet, snow and frigid air could not deter hundreds of Americans representing a wide cross-section of the New York region’s Jewish community from coming out to chant, sing and show their strong support for refugees.
Equipped with protest signs, umbrellas and a tradition of welcoming the stranger, upwards of 1,000 rally goers stood for nearly two hours in Battery Park at the Southern tip of Manhattan Island. They heard from elected officials, clergy and communal leaders, who responded to President Trump’s executive order targeting refugees, as well as the recent rise of xenophobia in the United States.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Public Advocate for the City of New York Letitia James, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and New York City Councilman Brad Lander were among the officials to speak.
“No freezing rain is going to stop us from fighting for justice,” proclaimed Mayor de Blasio.
During a special ritual moment, Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, Director of Education at HIAS, led a minyan of leaders from New York’s Jewish community in the ancient Jewish practice of kriah, in which Jews in mourning tear a black ribbon and wear it during the mourning period. The action, which symbolizes a deep loss, commemorated the countless people who have lost their lives in the global refugee crisis that has displaced over 65 million people to date. A kriah ribbon was affixed to a cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty on stage.
“For the first time in history, the Jewish people are not refugees.” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, HIAS Vice President for Community Engagement, told the crowd, “We are a free and empowered people in America and around the world. And we have a role to play – a responsibility we must live up to. We are called by our mandate to welcome the stranger and to love the stranger.”
Rosenn was joined by several other Jewish leaders who addressed the rally, including ADL Executive Director Jonathan Greenblatt, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Steven Exler of The Bayit, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue, and Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Executive Director of the 14th Street Y, who served as the emcee of the event.
“Over 130 years ago, the founders of HIAS began their work right here, in Castle Clinton, then known as Castle Garden,” explained HIAS CEO and President Mark Hetfield.
“America is a leader on refugee issues and human rights – and we know from history that the world will follow our lead – whether we lead to the top or we lead to the bottom.”
To help drive home the message of opposition to Trump’s policies, Sana Mustafa, a Syrian asylee, activist, and recent Bard College graduate said, “As a refugee, as a Syrian, as a Muslim, as a woman, as a person of color, I protest with you any lack of welcome toward refugees. We come to the United States seeking safety and a future, and we are grateful to the Jewish community which continues to stand by our side.”
Mustafa is seeking to reunite with her family, including her father, who was abducted in 2013. The executive order signed by President Trump on January 27 (but later lifted by a federal judge), indefinitely bans Syrians from entering the U.S.
Remarks by author and former Soviet Jewish refugee Gary Shteyngart, and a musical performance by singer/songwriter Chana Rothman, kept the crowd energized in the cold and rainy conditions.
Imam Shamsi Ali, President of the Nusantara Foundation, and Ayala Goldstein, a Yemenite Jew whose family fled Yemen in 1949 rounded out the program.
As activists braved the weather in New York, simultaneous sister actions took place in cities across the country as part of the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.
On Saturday, February 11, in Washington, D.C., more than 600 people attended a special Havdalah service organized by HIAS and the JCRC of Greater Washington at Washington Hebrew Congregation, demonstrating the powerful Jewish communal support for welcoming refugees.
To learn more about HIAS efforts to welcome and protect refugees, including their legal action with the ACLU, follow HIAS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.