Temple Israel in Greenfield leads interfaith help for refugees

  • Marc Kaufmann of Buckland and Jim Kessler of Shelburne load household goods and full backpacks onto a truck as part of a refugee relief project at Temple Israel in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

For the Gazette
Thursday, October 06, 2016

GREENFIELD — One recent afternoon, more than two dozen backpacks filled with school supplies sat in a room at Temple Israel among linens and household cleaning supplies, ready to be shipped to Springfield and distributed among arriving refugee families.

Since starting its Refugee Support Project this spring, the temple has collected and donated two truckloads of school and household kits to Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based organization that helps resettle more than 230 refugees each year through its New American Program.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener said the idea for the project came about last year when some temple members started thinking about how the community could help refugees from Syria and other flash points around the globe.

“I had such an impulse to help people that needed to escape Syria and I totally felt helpless,” she said. “The humanitarian need is so overwhelming.”

She said it took members several months to figure out the best way the congregation could help, and eventually found Jewish Family Service’s program. On its website, the organization lists items it needs for three kinds of refugee kits, including those for households, children and women with babies. Since the spring, temple members have purchased gently used items at yard sales, shopped store sales and collected donations from the public.

“I quality control this stuff, this is not a dumping zone,” Cohen-Kiener said, adding everything is either new or gently used.

The temple’s effort to collect donations for the kits also includes a strong interfaith aspect, she said. Over the past several months, the project has grown to include help and contributions from several other local religious organizations, including the Interfaith Council of Franklin County, Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls, Charlemont Federated Church, St. Johns Episcopal Church in Ashfield and Ashfield Congregational Church.

Virginia Gabert, who helped spearhead the Charlemont Federated Church’s involvement in the project, said the effort to assist refugee families was welcome among church members.

“With all the stuff going on in Syria, if you’re going to leave your home country and up and move, it’s a nice way to welcome them to the area and to help them get settled, and hopefully have a more positive outlook on the rest of their lives than what they had to flee from,” she said.

Over the summer, Charlemont Federated Church members donated enough items to put together a household kit, a bathroom kit, a cleaning kit and several kitchen kits, with church funds used to purchase some items that hadn’t been donated. For its final project, the church put together 25 school backpacks full of supplies.

Cohen-Kiener said the fact that so many different religious organizations are working together on the project adds to the imperative.

“It adds to the credibility of the kindness in a certain way,” she said.

Gabert agreed, saying, “I think it shows more of an acceptance. Coming from a federated church into Jewish Family Services to Syrian refugees that may have whatever religious background they may have — I think it helps to reinforce the acceptance of people regardless of what they believe in and what their background is.”

The project will remain ongoing, Cohen-Kiener said, and the temple is also doing education around the issue. During the high holiday services on Yom Kippur  on Wednesday — the holiest day of the Jewish year — the refugee crisis will be discussed, as part of the reading of the law talks about serving God by taking care of the widow and the orphan and the stranger.

“It’s direct support, it’s advocacy, it’s education,” Cohen-Kiener said of the project. “We’re doing everything we can.”