Hillel talks refugee crisis at annual Global Justice Shabbat

Photo by Lynsey Jeffery
Photo by Lynsey Jeffery

by Lynsey Jeffery

Maryland Hillel sponsored its fifth annual Global Justice Shabbat Friday and Saturday. This year’s topic was the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

The event consisted of several gatherings: a Shabbat dinner Friday night, a ‘Lunch and Learn’ Saturday afternoon and a closing dinner Saturday evening. The featured guests were Rabbi Marc Gopin of George Mason University, his colleague Christel Beldin and Qutaiba Idlbi, a Syrian political activist.

Over 200 people attended the Global Justice Shabbat according to Talia Orencel, director of Engagement and Social Justice at Hillel.

The first to speak was Gopin, who said that as a child he didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Jewish. He grew up with a fear of strangers, but as he grew he realized that loving the stranger is a key principle of Judaism.

Gopin recalled the message in the Torah that Jews should care for strangers because they “were strangers in Egypt,” and therefore know the heart of the stranger. He applied this idea to displaced Syrians all over the world and the Middle East, forced to flee from their homes.

The rabbi has taken a number of trips to Syria and surrounding areas with students and volunteers to provide humanitarian relief. 

Beldin, a humanitarian volunteer, also spoke to her experience with refugee children. “I don’t see children as strangers, I actually see them as my children.” She described the pain in the eyes of a young boy who had seen a loved one decapitated by a member of ISIL.

Idlbi, who grew up in Damascus, has been imprisoned and released by the Syrian government several times, but decided to flee when his younger brother was targeted.

“We left Syria because we didn’t have a sense of freedom,” Idlbi said. “Coming to the U.S….meant that sense of freedom. That I can be who I am…and you cannot find that anywhere around Syria.”

Attendees were encouraged to talk about their personal experience with persecution as well as strategies to combat xenophobia, suffering and injustice.

At the “Lunch and Learn” on Saturday, Gopin spoke more about his specific experiences on humanitarian trips and how they intertwined with his study of Jewish practices and law.

“There’s no rabbi in history who’s gotten as far into the radical Arab world as I have,” Gopin said. He said his faith guides his decision-making on the trips.

The overall point of the event was “to create dialogue,” according to Talia Hoch, a junior behavioral community health major and religious studies minor, who co-chaired the Global Justice Shabbat. “We wanted to bring people into the story,” Hoch said.

The dinner featured a setting aimed at making the story real as well; the walls were decorated to resemble refugee camps and quilts made by refugees depicting their stories hung in the corners.

“I was really happy with the way it turned out,” Hoch said. Her only disappointment was that Hillel was not able to partner with the Muslim Students Association due to scheduling conflicts.

Orencel also played a large role in the organization of the event, including choosing the theme.

“The Syrian refugee crisis is something that’s been going on for years,” Orencel said. “As Jews, this is a cause we can relate to personally.” 

To Orencel, the Global Justice Shabbat signifies a larger theme in Hillel’s future.

“It’s amazing so many students from so many diverse backgrounds came together for an event like this and showed solidarity for each other,” Orencel said. “Hillel is more than just a place for just Jewish religious traditions. It’s also a place where social justice is thriving.”


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