Gather’s Jewish Community Organizer of the Week, Sarah, has been a DC resident for over 13 years! I got the opportunity to interview her about her role as the Community Engagement Director for HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) – why their work is more important than ever, and how you can get involved. I also learned about Sarah’s involvement in a women’s social justice a cappella group! Read more fun facts about Sarah in our exclusive interview.
Jackie: What first brought you to DC?
Sarah: I came to DC in 2003 for a year of service with AVODAH. I lived in a group house with eight other people, worked at a literacy tutoring non-profit, and learned about combatting poverty in the US.
Jackie: Why have you stayed this long?
Sarah: I love DC. The combination of local, national, and international issues means that there’s never a dull moment. And, this is a place that attracts a lot of mission-driven people from a lot of different backgrounds. I also love that Rock Creek Park runs through the whole city and that the area has become so bike-able.
Jackie: You work for HIAS. For those of us who are not familiar, can you tell us what your organization does?
Sarah: HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) is the world’s oldest refugee organization – we go all the way back to 1881. We set up shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and started welcoming Jews who were fleeing Czarist Russia. For the first 120 years, HIAS helped refugees because they were Jewish. After most Soviet Jews were resettled, HIAS had a decision to make: declare victory and close up shop, or broaden our reach to the world’s current-day refugees. Obviously, we chose the latter. Now we serve refugees of a wide variety of backgrounds in 12 countries around the world, and we resettle refugees in 24 locations around the United States. We also advocate for policies that help more refugees find safety and dignity, and we’re leading the Jewish response to the global refugee crisis. In other words, today we help refugees because we are Jewish.
Jackie: What do you love about your job as the Community Engagement Director for greater Washington, DC?
Sarah: I love this work because I get to help people put their values into action. My job is to educate, engage, and mobilize the DC Jewish community to respond to the global refugee crisis, based on our Jewish values and experience. So many people I come into contact with have a personal connection with refugee issues or with HIAS – maybe their grandparents or parents were rescued from Nazi Germany by HIAS, their best friend was resettled from Iran, or they have personally volunteered with Syrian refugees in Greece or Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. It’s inspiring to see how many DC Jews are eager to learn more, to volunteer, and to speak out on the importance of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. Across the country, over 250 synagogues have joined the HIAS Welcome Campaign – stating their support for refugees and committing to do at least one program or action related to refugee issues – and over 1,500 rabbis recently signed a letter calling on our newly elected leaders to keep America’s doors open to refugees. In the DC area alone, over 25 synagogues have joined the Welcome Campaign, and over 100 local rabbis signed the letter.
Jackie: How can someone who is interested get involved?
Sarah: I’m glad you asked! First off, it’s more important than ever to speak out on behalf of such a vulnerable group of people, and that’s why we’re going to have a meeting for young professionals on Monday, February 6 from 6:30-8 pm at Sixth & I to talk about how to make a difference for refugees through social media, advocacy, and other timely actions. All are welcome! More info and RSVP here.
This spring we’re planning to hold a #JewsforRefugees Assembly in DC to send a strong message to our elected leaders about the imperative to continue welcoming refugees, and we’re looking forward to having a strong showing from the 20s and 30s community.
We also offer other volunteer opportunities, including a monthly program where participants write letters to asylum seekers who are in detention, as well as opportunities for pro bono lawyers and translators to help asylum seekers in the DC area.
The best way to get connected to our events and opportunities is to sign up here.
Jackie: Why do you feel strongly about “paying it forward”?
Sarah: A few years ago, my Great Uncle Sam told our family a story about when his father – my great-grandfather – came from Poland to Argentina. He was welcomed on the docks by a stranger who offered him housing and help finding work. Once my great-grandfather was self-sufficient and offered to pay the rent he owed, the man told him, “Don’t pay me back – pay it forward.”
Jackie: While not advocating for refugees, what do you like to do around DC?
I moonlight as a singer in SongRise, a women’s social justice a cappella group. Our mission is to inspire action through song, and we perform at a variety of events and gatherings around town. I am a proud bike commuter (whenever possible!). On Shabbat, you can often find me at Tikkun Leil Shabbat or Segulah Minyan. And much of my time is spent with my awesome two-and-a-half-year-old and my husband, who runs a youth social entrepreneurship organization called LearnServe International.
Jackie: What is one thing you can’t get through your day without?
Sleep. Is that too literal? Well, there’s a great quote from Ella Baker, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” Sometimes I think the next line should be, “We who believe in freedom haveto rest for it to come.”
Jackie: Finish the sentence – When the Jews Gather… we can inspire and empower each other to make a more just and connected world.