As I stood helping refugees onto the rocky beaches of Lesvos, Greece I wondered again and again: What would it take for me to leave everything I had ever known? To put my wife and 2-year-old son in a leaky life raft that was built for 15 but stuffed with 50? To carry only a garbage bag of our possessions with us? What would I have to be running from to pay thousands of dollars to a smuggler and risk the lives of my family members with the goal of reaching a place where such basic questions as, “Where will we live?” “What will we do?” and “Will we be safe?” were totally uncertain?
Embedded with a humanitarian non-governmental organization called Israaid, I had come to Lesvos to represent the orthodox synagogue where I am a rabbi, doing what I could to support Israaid’s medical and psychosocial relief efforts and bearing witness to the largest refugee crisis since WWII.
What I saw was shocking, joyful, tragic, even uplifting, often all at the same time. There was no official coordination on the beaches, only teams of international volunteers working together to help bring people ashore and care for the dead who didn’t make it across. I witnessed the panic of separated family members, the despair of meager possessions lost at sea. We helped warm, clothe, and comfort hundreds of crying, shivering children. Together with volunteers from Denmark and California, I lifted a woman my grandmother’s age out of the bottom of a boat, and then assembled her waterlogged wheelchair so she could be wheeled up the beach.
What were they running from? An answer came into sharp relief when the Israaid team showed me a picture a child had drawn with one of their psychologists. The child refused to speak, but when given the chance to express himself without words, he drew members of his family being beheaded by ISIS on one side of the page, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s planes bombing his house on the other. Thousands of children across the Middle East share his all-too-real fears.
Who could have done what, and when, to stop the horrific spiral is an important question. But it’s actually not one that matters to these refugees. The question they are asking need to be answered now: Where can we live our lives free from beheadings and bombs? As I lent my hand and looked into refugees’ eyes, I felt strongly that the global community has failed these families.
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am just for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” This famous teaching of the great Jewish sage Hillel kept running through my mind as I worked and watched and listened.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Taking care of one’s own needs for safety and security is a sacred duty. Were there potential terrorists among those coming in the boats? It’s possible. That’s why global coordination, deep screening, and background checks are vital. It’s also why one of the most distressing things I saw on the ground was the lack of coordination and oversight from the EU and the UN.
“But if I am just for myself, what am I?” If we begin and end with our own needs, ignoring the suffering of millions of innocents, what do we become? If I, the descendant of refugees who were sent away by country after country, turn my back, what does that make me? As I ate my kosher Thanksgiving meal of dried fish and bananas, I also thought about another group of refuges fleeing persecution from their homeland. The pilgrims we celebrate. While neither their journey nor my relatives’ is a direct parallel to today’s situation, we need to keep the echoing cries of innocents fleeing terror in our personal and national consciousnesses.
Our need to be safe and our obligation to those who are suffering will not be resolved by cheap politics and sound bites from the right or the left and we cannot debate endlessly while refugees live on the edge of life and death.
We must remember that the United States is the leader in successfully implementing global strategies, and creating cooperation across international lines when it comes to emergency humanitarian needs.
In Greece, I witnessed with my own eyes thousands of tired, poor, hungry -- wet, scared, cold, shivering -- masses, huddled together in astonishingly small boats, carrying with them a yearning for freedom. If not now, when?
Hart serves at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an orthodox synagogue in the Bronx.