Guest preacher: Lisa Weinstock, Member and Refugee Host, Temple Beth Elohim and Wellesley Village Church (United Church of Christ)
Lisa Weinstock, member, Temple Beth Elohim and Wellesly Village Church (UCC)
October 16, 2022
Back in November of 2016, while completely overwhelmed by the results of the recent presidential election, I was flipping through the monthly bulletin from the temple my husband and I belong to – Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley – when something caught my eye. It was the featured article on the Syrian Refugee resettlement effort that we had heard about during the high holidays earlier that fall. I had been very interested in learning more about this program, but as a school teacher, the rush of the new school year had gotten my full attention and I had sort of forgotten about it. The article mentioned an informational meeting later that same week and I decided that I would attend.
As an interfaith couple, my husband Peter and I made the decision years ago to join both a temple and a church. Through the years, I had been very involved in our church, which is where I got to know Kent. And although we always attended high holidays at the temple and both of our children went through the Hebrew School program, I personally had never been involved in any other programs or groups at the temple, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The evening of the meeting, I entered a room that very quickly became standing room only. After an introductory presentation and overview of the resettlement program, the person leading the meeting asked people to share why they were interested in becoming involved in the resettlement effort. One after the other, people spoke of needing to do something, something to feel as though they were having a positive impact in a time of such negativity.
And in that moment, I remembered an excerpt from a book I had read called “Half the Sky”. The author retold this Hawaiian parable, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with: “A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water. ‘What are you doing, son?’ the man asks. ‘You see how many starfish there are? You’ll never make a difference.’ The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. ‘It sure made a difference to that one,’ he said.
The ocean of refugees in this world is vast. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated at the end of 2021 that there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world.
So like so many others at the meeting that night, I decided to try and move out of the state of overwhelm and focus on something that I could do, something that might make a difference. I began small – I joined the household set up committee that was in charge of setting up the home that was rented for the first refugee family sponsored by the temple. We spent a weekend making the house a home, with donations from temple members and quite a few runs to Target. The family arrived in February of 2017 and by that time events in the country and decisions coming from the White House were again causing that feeling of overwhelm to grow. So I signed onto the education committee within the Refugee resettlement group and began doing English lessons with the mother. Although I had been an elementary school educator for 20+ years, I had never worked with an adult who spoke no English. Those early lessons were filled with lots of pictures, hand gestures, google translate and smiles. And without fail, every time I arrived, I was welcomed with delicious Syrian tea and cookies. Over time, Asmaa and I traded roles – she taught me how to make Kibbe, a delicious spiced meatball and the most wonderful tabouli I have ever tasted. Our 1 hour lessons often extended to 2 as we lingered over our tea and played with her 4 children.
That summer, when it was announced that the US would stop admitting refugees, we were approached about providing temporary housing for another Syrian refugee family. The mother needed urgent medical care and Jewish Family Services of Metrowest, the resettlement agency was trying to get the family to the US before the borders closed, but no housing had been secured for them yet. If I’m being honest, we didn’t immediately say yes. I was unsure about taking on what felt like such a big commitment. I was nervous about being able to provide what this family might need, given the trauma they had experienced and the medical road the mother now faced. After several long discussions, Peter and I decided to host the family. I did not know the verse from Hebrews 13 at that time – “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.” But I truly believe that we were being guided to make the decision we did and in doing so, we absolutely were hosts to angels.
Israa, the 11 year old daughter, let us know the very first night she arrived, that she was going to learn English, study hard and become a nurse so that she could help her mom get better. Every day during the 4 months the family was with us, she practiced her English, watching cartoons, using the books that she had received from some of the volunteers and playing with the kids in our neighborhood. And today, just 5 years later, Israa is a junior in high school, enrolled in a pre-nursing vocational program and on track to graduate with honors. And although Hind, the mother, still struggles with her English today, by the time the family moved out of our home and into their own apartment, she and I had both become fluent in a single phrase – I love you Lisa. ahibuk aydan – I love you too Hind.
Over the past six years, we have hosted angels from Syria, Afghanistan and now the Ukraine. In speaking with Kent about sharing my experiences today, he gave me lots to think about, questions to ponder, information to consider. He told me that the New Testament Greek word for angels actually means “messengers from God” and he asked if our guests were Godly messengers in any way? And I can say, without a doubt, that they were and continue to be.
During this year’s Rosh Hoshana service, the rabbi quoted Victor Frankl, the renowned psychologist and Holocaust survivor, who said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is the message that Peter and I have received over and over again, through the gift of being able to host these angels at our home. These people have had everything taken from them – family, homes, livelihoods, – and yet they have all chosen to live in gratitude and love, embracing their new lives and new friends. And we have been given this gift, this reminder of how we can choose to live our own lives in gratitude and love, as our new friends have chosen to do. Making the choice we did to welcome the stranger is something we are grateful for every day.
Making Room for the Refugee: Take-Home Questions
How do you make room for God in your life?
When and where?
What’s your motivation? How does it benefit you?
Are there ways you’d like to make more room?
What would that look like?
How do you already make more room for people who are lost, homeless, at the
How is God apparent in them?
Are there ways you’d like to make more room for people at the margins?