There was a police car stationed outside Temple Beth El-Augusta when I dropped my kids off for Hebrew School last Sunday. Shaken by the massacre of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of our temple asked for the police presence. Such is the America in which we live today, where we must fear going to houses of worship, school and public events.

Like many Jews in central Maine, I felt connected to the Jews at the Tree of Life not only through our shared faith but also through our shared commitment to welcoming refugees into our communities. I work with the Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP, pronounced “camp”), a local nonprofit that welcomes immigrants and works to build a thriving, integrated community here. Temple Beth El was a founding partner of CANMP, and Jews represent a disproportionate share of our volunteers.

It was precisely this kind of work that enraged the white supremacist accused of Saturday’s rampage. According to the shooter’ own social media posts, he was incensed that Jews were opening their doors to what he called “invaders” — refugees, primarily from Muslim countries, who he believed would “destroy” America. He was particularly disturbed by the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization founded in 1881 to help Jewish refugees transition to life in America.

In recent decades, HIAS has helped many thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Sudan, Syria, and other war-torn countries as they, too, make new lives in our country. On my computer, I proudly display a HIAS sticker that proclaims, “My people were refugees too.” For much of Jewish history, we have indeed been refugees, forced to flee from our homes as one authoritarian leader after another made us scapegoats for economic misery or political scandals. For me, and for many Jews, being a refugee is not part of the distant past. My grandmother, Berta Asch, escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and made her way to America, a country that promised freedom, opportunity, and, above all, safety.

Jewish stories and traditions reflect this history. We know what it is like to be driven from our homes, to be a stranger in a new land. That is why we place a high priority on “hachnasat orchim,” or “welcoming the stranger.” Indeed, the Torah portion for last Saturday tells us about how Abraham and Sarah welcomed three guests into their tent, offering them food, milk and rest. Embracing refugees and helping them grow comfortable in their new land is part of who we are as Jews.

Our history and traditions help explain why Jews are so disproportionately represented in various social movements that seek to build a more just, more equal, more welcoming America. From gay rights to civil rights, Jews are on the front lines fighting for justice and working to help America live up to its ideals.

Jews are driven to this work not only by our religious faith, but also by our faith in America. Before the founding of Israel in 1948, the United States was just about the only place in the world where my grandmother and other Jews could feel safe. This beautiful country, with its ideals of equality and its constitutional guarantees of religious liberty — this was and is the Promised Land. And so patriotism is at the core of American Jewish identity.

For millennia, we have faced enemies who cry, as the shooter in Pittsburgh did, “Kill all the Jews!” The Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis — all tried to destroy Judaism. All failed. We will survive this latest assault on our humanity.

But we need your help. Like other religious and racial minorities, we need allies and advocates in the broader community to stand with us, speak with us, and act with us as we battle against white supremacists, anti-Semites, and the politicians who encourage them. For those of you interested in showing solidarity at this time of grief, we welcome you to join us at Temple Beth El this Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. for Shabbat services.

I also encourage you to go beyond one show of solidarity. Support the values of an egalitarian, inclusive, welcoming America all year long with your time, your money, and your votes. The Jews of central Maine — and all racial and religious minorities — need you.

Chris Myers Asch is a member of Temple Beth El-Augusta and runs the Capital Area New Mainers Project: www.newmainersproject.org.


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.