Jewish community plans refugee-centered events

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    Rabbi Raquel S. (Riqi) Kosovske of Beit Ahavah prepares to lead a Shabbat morning musical service and Torah reading in Florence as part of the reform synagogue's 20th anniversary, or "Ahaversary", on Saturday, May 12, 2018.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2018 11:52:14 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Members of the Jewish community in the Pioneer Valley are holding a number of events in October to highlight the plight of refugees, and connect their issues with the Jewish community past and present.

“This issue is just so important and compelling,” said Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, the rabbi for Beit Ahavah.

Friday will see a 6 p.m. refugee-themed Shabbat service at Beit Ahavah, Northampton’s Reform synagogue, at 130 Pine St. in Florence. Another refugee-themed Shabbat service will be held on Saturday at Congregation B’nai Israel, at 253 Prospect St., at 9:30 a.m.

Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath.

There are also going to be two talks from Libby Garland at the end of the month on her book “After They Closed the Gates,” which examines Jewish illegal immigration to the United States from 1921 to 1965. The first talk will be at Beit Ahavah on Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. and the second will be on Oct. 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church Amherst, 165 Main St. The second talk will be followed by the monthly community potluck with Lucio Perez, who is in sanctuary from deportation at the church.

The public, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, is welcome at all four events.

One of the people who was key to bringing Garland to the Pioneer Valley was Alice Levine.

Levine moved to Northampton about a year ago from the Boston area, and for the last decade she has dedicated herself to immigration justice work, as well as related American foreign policy in Latin America. However, she said that it wasn’t until she read an article this Passover that she became aware of the history of Jewish illegal immigration to the United States.

“I had never heard the words, Jewish illegal alien,” said Levine.

The article included a reference to Garland’s book, which Levine subsequently began to read.

“I couldn’t put it down and made hundreds and hundreds of notes,” said Levine.

Garland said she saw parallels between some of the Jewish illegal immigration experiences and the experiences of those entering the United States illegally today, noting the existence of Jewish smuggling networks and Jews being smuggled to America in the holds of ships alongside alcohol and members of other ethnic groups.

When Levine reached out to Garland about coming to speak in the Pioneer Valley, Levine said that she agreed to come for only her travel expenses. She also agreed to do the event at First Congregational Church as well, in order to speak to the interfaith community that has formed around Perez.

“She rearranged her schedule so that she could be here for both events,” said Levine.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper, of First Congregational Church, said that providing sanctuary to Perez has also involved dealing with the larger impacts of U.S. immigration policy.

“We felt that it was important for us,” said Kemper, on hosting the talk.

Garland’s visit is being co-sponsored by Beit Ahavah, CBI, Jewish Community of Amherst, First Congregational Church, and the Interfaith Sanctuary and Solidarity Network.

The refugee Shabbat services are a part of the National Refugee Shabbat project of HIAS. Originally founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society, it was initially created to aid Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.

“Thanks to HIAS, some of my grandparents came to this country,” said Kosovske.

Today, HIAS works on refugee issues worldwide.

Kosovske said that the Shabbat services are also timed with the Torah portion that details God telling Abraham to leave his homeland.

“It really is a Shabbat that is completely about the refugee experience,” said Kosovske.

The Shabbat service at Beit Ahavah will be followed by a vegetarian potluck featuring dishes from attendees own immigrant backgrounds. It will also have vegetarian pierogies from Irida Kakhtiranova, who is residing in sanctuary from deportation at the Unitarian Society in Northampton.

The Shabbat service at CBI, meanwhile, will be followed by a post-service panel and Q&A. A kiddush luncheon will also feature foods from refugee countries of origin.

Kosovske said she has an interest in generational trauma, and she believes the United States is creating that by locking up thousands of immigrant children

“We’re creating generations upon generations of trauma right now,” said Kosovske, who noted the impact of generational trauma on the Jewish community.

Kosovske said the Jewish community around the nation is being mobilized around immigration issues, and that nearly everyone that she knows in the rabbinical world is preaching about it.

Asked why this was the case now, given that mass deportations also happened under President Barack Obama, Kosovske and Levine said that the meanness and rhetoric of the Trump administration has been a galvanizing force.

“Emotionally, something has changed in a huge way,” said Levine.

Kosovske also cited the treatment of immigrant children under the Trump administration as another factor.

“It’s evocative to me of concentration camps,” said Kosovske, referring to areas near the border where children have been detained.

Both women also said that the Jewish community is a racially diverse one, although Garland’s book focuses on Jewish illegal immigration from Eastern Europe.

Levine also has a dream that’s bigger than the Garland event: The creation of a network in the Jewish community to deal with immigration issues.

“It’s happened in pockets,” she said. “I want something that’s living all the time.”

Levine also suggested that refugee issues could be included in the education of Jewish youth.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to develop a curriculum around these issues?” said Levine.

Beit Ahava shares the building with the Florence Congregational Church, which is located across the street from the statue of famed abolitionist and orator Sojourner Truth. Both Levine and Kosovske spoke to the power of that history.

“This is a good place to actually talk about this,” said Kosovske.

Bera Dunau can be reached at

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