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Cambridge synagogue pledges to open arms to refugees

Rabbi Liza Stern (center) gaves students at Congregation Eitz Chayim a lesson in honey extraction and a sampling of the sweet honey. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

As heartbreaking images from Europe showed the desperate toll of the refugee crisis, a small Cambridge synagogue sent out a daily message to the congregation, words to consider in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

“Faith is not just something you have; it’s something you do,” read one quotation, from President Obama.

For members of Eitz Chayim Congregation, the message struck a chord, prompting a broad discussion about how they could help the vast wave of refugees fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East. Now, amid growing calls for the United States to accept more refugees, the synagogue has pledged to take in displaced families in an interfaith gesture of support.


“It was not so long ago that our people were stranded and no one particularly wanted to take us in,” said Rabbi Liza Stern. “How dare we not do something?”

The congregation issued a statement that welcomes refugees and calls on the US government to accept more Syrian refugees.

“We are reminded of our own relatives who sought shelter not that long ago, only to have country after country turn their backs on them,” members wrote.

The declaration, accompanied by concrete offers to help families who resettle in Massachusetts in the months to come, is part of a growing campaign by community groups and individuals who are moved by the plight of the migrants and want to help, advocates say.

“There’s a great amount of interest,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston.

Members of Temple Emanuel in Newton, for instance, have offered to provide families with furniture, clothing, and tutoring for their children, among other assistance.

“Our congregation is eager to help,” said Rabbi Michelle Robinson. “We have been overwhelmed with offers.”

Refugees must undergo an involved screening process before being cleared to enter the country, and are not expected to arrive for some time. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker have voiced support for having refugees resettle here.


From October 2014 through August, just over 1,300 refugees from around the world have settled in Massachusetts. About 350 were from Iraq, and 271 were from Somalia. Just 52 refugees were from Syria.

Officials recently said the United States would accept 85,000 refugees next year and 100,000 in 2017. The immigrants would be screened by the Department of Homeland Security and resettled across the country, which critics say raises security concerns.

Activists have urged US leaders to respond more aggressively given the scope of the crisis — one of the largest waves of refugees since World War II. Some 370,000 people, more than 70 percent of them fleeing civil war in Syria, have crossed the sea seeking asylum in Europe, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

The Cambridge synagogue announced its support after meeting on Yom Kippur, saying the magnitude of the problem compelled them to act.

“As a Jewish community, we are acutely aware of the corrosive effects of stereotyping people by religion, and feel particularly moved to reach out to the largely Muslim refugee population fleeing Syria,” they wrote.

Stern described the congregation as “the little engine that could” and predicted that other houses of worship will follow suit.

“I have no doubt that this will be a groundswell,” she said.

Stern said that some members worried that Muslim refugees might hold anti-Semitic views, but ultimately decided not to be “governed by our fears.”


Members will meet in the coming weeks to make more specific plans with an eye on reaching out to other religious communities in hopes of forging a larger effort.

David Abromowitz, a member of the congregation who sparked the effort, said he was motivated by the images of refugees being turned away from Hungary, with its echoes of World War II. Other members quickly signaled their support.

“There was an overwhelming sense that this was something we should do,” he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globepete.