Congregation Kneseth Israel Joins HIAS Refugee Shabbat


Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis will be taking part in the sixth annual Refugee Shabbat held by HIAS, the international Jewish nonprofit dedicated to aiding refugees. This special edition of the synagogue’s regular Daven and Dinner event makes them one of the many congregations across the world that will be participating in the HIAS program on Friday, Feb. 2, and Saturday, Feb. 3.

The exterior of Kneseth Israel’s building (Courtesy of Steve Sutton)

HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was founded in 1903 to help Jewish people fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. But its mission has changed and grown over time, such as during the Russian Revolution of 1917, World War II and the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 21st century, its scope has expanded to include non-Jewish refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Africa.

As well as being Kneseth Israel’s first time participating in the HIAS Refugee Shabbat, it is also the first time the synagogue has held a program focused on the plight of refugees since the Soviet Jewry movement, when they hosted a family who had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1980s. The synagogue will be celebrating its 118th anniversary in 2024, having operated through all of the same events that influenced HIAS’s cause.

“We just learned about the HIAS Refugee Shabbat this year,” said Steve Sutton, member and program chair of Kneseth Israel’s board of governors. “They invite congregations and other organizations from across the world to participate, to remind everyone that the refugee crisis is quite severe.”

Kneseth Israel is holding a Daven and Dinner event on Friday evening, featuring a menu of international cuisine to reflect HIAS’s mission of aiding refugees all over the world. Sutton noted that one congregant, who was a refugee from Egypt herself as a child, will be helping with the food and making baklava for the other attendees.

On Saturday, the kiddush lunch will be joined by guest speaker Rabbi Sarah Bassin, HIAS’s director of clergy and congregations. Much of Bassin’s work focuses on establishing interfaith relationships between Jewish and Muslim communities, and she has been on the ground helping refugees in majority-Muslim countries including Qatar, Azerbaijan and Iran.

“She’s going to be talking about how HIAS has expanded its mission, how Jewish traditions and laws impact that mission and how our congregants and others in the community can get more involved,” Sutton said. “It’s a great motivator for our congregants to get involved.”

HIAS, which is based in Silver Spring, operates on the notion that many Jewish people were refugees themselves at some point in history. Sutton noted that much of the Jewish population in the U.S. immigrated from Europe in order to escape antisemitic persecution and find a better life overseas.

“I want to encourage people to share their refugee stories at the Shabbat service,” he said. “From their families, their grandparents, their parents. … I’ve been telling them to limit their stories to one page, because I hope to be able to compile them all into a book in remembrance of how our families came to the United States.”

Sutton added that the rabbi, Rabbi/Chazzan David Sislen, is currently in the process of researching related causes that benefit refugees that Kneseth Israel can support.

“We’re trying to be more involved with the community, with doing things for others that would make their lives better,” Sutton said.

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