Not all on board with Jewish efforts to bring Syrians to Pittsburgh

Not all on board with Jewish efforts to bring Syrians to Pittsburgh

By and large, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community — in line with the American Jewish community in general — has rallied behind efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the United States. Formal statements in support of immigration have been issued by area institutions, winter coats for newly arrived families have been collected, and outraged discourse on social media protesting the Trump administration’s attempts to thwart immigration from Syria and other Muslim-majority nations is common.

But despite the outcry from so many in Jewish Pittsburgh that it is imperative to “welcome the stranger,” others argue that Jewish funds and resources should not be going to help bring Syrians here.  

“How can Jews be so smart and yet so stupid at the same time?” said Lou Weiss of Squirrel Hill. “Everyone loves the immigration of people to our country to become Americans. But who’s in favor of bringing in immigrants from a country where they hate gays, where women are subjected to female circumcision and honor killings, and they hate Jews?”

While Weiss may hold the minority opinion on this issue, he certainly is not alone.

“From our perspective, 99 percent of the responses we’ve gotten have been positive,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which so far has resettled 51 Syrian families in Pittsburgh and is scheduled to bring in additional families. “We are aware, though, that there are other members of the Jewish community that have different feelings about this issue.”

JF&CS is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, although the funds it uses to settle refugees come from the government and private donors, Golin said.

The Community Relations Council of the Federation has received calls regarding Jewish participation in bringing Syrian refugees to Pittsburgh, said Josh Sayles, director of the CRC.

“We’ve gotten a lot of calls, positive and negative, probably more positive than negative,” Sayles said. “Some people think [the Federation] is funding it, and some just don’t want JF&CS to do this. But JF&CS does not pick the refugees it resettles, Syrian or otherwise. The government picks the refugees.”

Nonetheless, the CRC has issued a formal statement in support of the immigration of refugees. The statement was circulated in response to the first executive order issued by President Donald Trump in January calling for a suspension of the refugee program and a ban on immigration from seven countries that are predominately Muslim. That executive order was blocked by federal judges, as was a modified executive order limiting immigration issued on March 6.

“The core Jewish value of welcoming the stranger is not only found in our texts, but also in the work of our Jewish agencies both locally and nationally,” said Cindy Goodman-Leib, chair of the CRC, in the prepared statement. “It is critical that we do not turn our backs on millions and millions of people in their greatest hour of need.”

Some who have phoned the Federation to complain about using Jewish resources to help the Syrians are “concerned about protecting Americans from the increasing threat of extremism,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Federation. “We’ve also heard from people who are supportive of the efforts to welcome refugees and some who think the Jewish community is not doing enough.”

While the responsibility of protecting Americans is “very important,” Hertzman continued, “we also recognize the importance of our beneficiary agencies — JF&SC in particular — and its role in resettling refugees in Western Pennsylvania. I hear the voice of those who are concerned about refugee resettlement; that is why we’re committed to continue to engage a variety of stakeholders in the Jewish community, in the government and in the broader civil society to continue the conversation about refugee resettlement.”

While Federation dollars are not earmarked for refugee resettlement, JF&CS does receive “an unrestricted allocation that it can use however it wants,” Hertzman said, noting that refugee resettlement is only one of the missions of JF&CS, which include helping Jewish families in crisis, social work, and providing for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.

Complaints in the community regarding Jewish support for refugees have extended beyond the work of JF&CS.  A winter coat drive at Congregation Beth Shalom for the new refugees was met with some “dissent,” said Marlene Behrmann-Cohen, who spearheaded the drive, although the congregation, as a whole, donated many coats. Likewise, an “All are Welcome” sign on the grounds of Rodef Shalom Congregation drew criticism from at least one member of the broader Jewish community, who had voted for Trump and felt the sign to be an affront.

“I believe the political climate demands people to speak out, but what to say is really tricky,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom. “Not everyone thrills with the idea of helping those that they feel are aligned with Iran and with the Jewish people’s enemies.

“But from a Jewish perspective,” he continued, “a refugee is a refugee, and one who needs our help deserves it.”

Such is the perspective of Sue Berman, who attended a recent parlor meeting hosted by JF&CS about its work with the refugees.

Berman said she is “on board” with the organization’s work.

“We have a ‘welcoming the stranger’ value in Judaism,” Berman said. “And honestly, historically, we came here as immigrants, and somebody helped us. We are now a thriving community, and we should pay it forward.”

Others are in favor of helping the Syrian refugees, but with certain caveats.

“Tzedakah should begin with the Jewish community; the Jewish community needs to be taken care of first,” said Andrew Neft of Upper St. Clair. “If there are resources left over, then we should help other communities. When people really are being persecuted, we should be helping.”

For Jeff Pollock, who is president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ZOA but who offered his opinions as an individual not representing that organization, America’s borders should be open to those who need help.

“I would love for the Jews to have been treated with open arms during the FDR years, and to not be a hypocrite, I guess our borders should be similarly open to the Syrians who are being besieged,” he said.

While appreciating recent efforts by some Muslims to restore vandalized Jewish cemeteries, Pollock still has a “deep-seated fear of potential anti-Western terrorists sneaking through the vetting process. I have mixed emotions that I cannot seem to reconcile.”

But for Weiss, the issue of whether Jews should be supporting the effort to bring Syrians to this country is pretty cut and dried.

“Take a look at what’s going on in Europe; that’s what will happen here,” Weiss said, noting the mass migration of Jews from European countries who feel threated by Islamic immigrants there. “Jewish people are people of immigration. But we have to see who it is we’re welcoming into the United Sates. Syrians are taught Holocaust denial. They are taught that Jews are the sons of apes and pigs. There are blood libel books written by their leaders. Only the Jews would pay to bring them to this country.

“You have to think about this rationally,” he continued. “Who are the immigrants? They hate gays, and they subject women to horrible second-class treatment — not every single person, but as a group. And if you bring them here, ultimately, they will vote. If you think they’ll vote to support Israeli interests, you’re sadly mistaken.”

While Weiss is not one of the individuals who has complained to the Federation or to JF&CS, he nonetheless feels strongly about the issue.

“The anti-Semitism of Syrian Muslims is not a quirk,” he said. “It’s a feature of their culture. I love immigrants. But I don’t love the immigration of people that are anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-Semitic.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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