A New Jersey Rabbi’s Passover Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

2016-04-23T22:02:38+00:00 April 23rd, 2016|
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky

In an extensive and wide-ranging interview with the Times of Israel’s Lois Goldrich, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky discussed at length his observations and insights into the Syrian refugee crisis, in light of the Jewish holiday of Passover. As a Syrian, I found myself amazed at the fact that a Rabbi in the USA could, by drawing on the lessons of Passover, feel so much sympathy for Syrian refugees, in stark contrast to the apathy towards us on the part of most of the Arab world, many of whom will be reading countless chapters of the Quran but wont move an inch to provide assistance to Syrians.

Rabbi Pitkowsky is the religious leader of the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey. In the interview, the Rabbi posed a very insightful question, relevant not just to the Jewish people but to all the peoples of the world.

What does ‘never again’ mean when it’s not us being attacked?

The Rabbi addressed the complexities of the Syrian refugee crisis; the very notion of Jews helping people from a country in perpetual enmity to the state of Israel, the security risks involved in relocating Syrian refugees to the West, and the charge that some refugees who look to settle in Europe and North America do so more out of economic motives than humanitarian ones.

All these subjects, Rabbi Pitkowsky addressed with observations that were rational and level-headed. The Rabbi displayed a commendably sensible view of the crisis that stands in stark contrast to the xenophobic scare-mongering prevalent in most of American punditry, where politicians are admired for rejecting even five-year old Syrian orphans for relocation to the United States.

The Rabbi also mentioned the strong desire on the part of the congregation’s members to help Syrian refugees, and noted that while Jewish congregations and groups in Canada were deeply involved in sponsoring hundreds of refugee families, a similar option did not exist in the USA. But while the Rabbi admitted he may not have all the answers to this complicated and tragic issue, “The overriding goal is for people not to ignore the issue, and it’s easy to ignore it in our complicated, busy lives.”

As a Syrian who feels let down by his fellow Arabs, I cannot help but admire how the Rabbi’s drawing on the lessons of Passover have lead him to a morally courageous and compassion point of view. In his words;

We’re as free as we can be here in Bergen County, and powerful enough to bring social justice into a seder to cry out for a world that is not what it should be.

Remarkable, that a study of Passover should lead members of a congregation in a far off land, to feel compassion and sympathy to a people who in all likelihood they have never met. In the coming week, many Muslims in the Arab world will be praying five times a day and reading chapter after chapter of the Quran, and yet precious few will be moved to feel the sympathy and compassion for Syrians that Rabbi Pitkowsky expressed. The world, it seems, would be a much better place if more people spent time reading up on the lessons of Passover.

To read the extensive Times of Israel interview with Rabbi Pitkowsky, click here.