two men walk through bleak rows of small white tents
A view of the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey, which houses some 35,000 Syrian refugees (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Carl Court)

High Holidays are a time to help refugees — including the one inside of you

The refugee experience is one of loss: of family, friends, language, history, culture, work, home, really everything they had known. The journey to find a safe haven involves leaving behind the familiar and struggling with uncertainty, trauma and angst, and entering a new life in a totally unfamiliar culture.

Many never find that safe haven and are left to wander the Earth.

For those who find it, many overcome extremely difficult obstacles and shape a new life.

On Passover, the goal is to connect with the existential reality that we were, in fact, refugees. This task is not easy as our life in America is so far removed from our historical narrative.

However, the High Holy Days are different — a season of the heart, the soul, a time for self-examination, honesty and personal change. Are we too not looking for a safe haven, a way to grieve our losses, a way to reshape a meaningful life in a tumultuous and unstable world?

The refugee’s struggle with loss and efforts to create life anew is also the human experience. As we progress through life, we go through many stages. We lose the wonder of childhood, we lose the protection of the school environment, we lose the exaltation of first love, we lose dreams, we lose our loved ones, and many lose themselves. We grapple with ambiguity, lack of clarity about our future (both personally and as a country) and try to adjust to the fast-changing world around us. And many of us wonder what the future will bring and how to thrive in it.

On a superficial level, we have very little in common with refugees. However, at a much deeper level, there is much we share.

The High Holy Days offer us an opportunity to explore the refugee within our own souls, heart and conscience. Like the stirring sounds of the shofar, the overarching goal of the High Holy Days is to alarm us, awaken us to our inner lives and help us reconnect to our values, our history, our ideals, our purpose, our sense of self-worth.

The liturgy is about evaluating our lives and asking difficult questions, like who shall live and who shall die? This is not a literal question, but one with far deeper meaning. How shall I live in these turbulent times and how do I infuse my life with meaning, even when life did not turn out as I expected?

The journey of life, even in the best of circumstances, for those who wander this Earth as refugees is horrifying. Many will never find safe haven. Many will never have all that we take for granted. Yet their journeys do not diminish the challenge of our journeys. We face health issues, personal challenges, loss of loved ones, and a constant state of confusion and tumult in the current political climate, all impacting us greatly.


RELATED: There is no moral dilemma — let the asylum-seekers stay!


The refugee experience offers a paradigm of how to grapple with our own challenges.

Some refugees end up scarred for life, never able to move on from the horrible traumas they survived. But many find incredible ways to build a new life, always carrying the past with them but living in the present with courage, resilience and hope.

Over the years, I have had the chance to “bear witness,” being present in many refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, they are sobering places, but each time I meet people who teach me a great deal about my own journey on this Earth and how I can better make the most of my life.

Meron Semedar, a refugee from Eritrea who survived horrific brutality, offers some great insights that we can certainly use as we welcome in the new year 5780. A teaching assistant at the University of San Francisco while he earned a master’s of art in international studies there from 2015 to 2017, Meron quotes an African proverb: “He who does not know where he came from, does not know where he is going.”

He goes on to say, “It is not an easy road — but hope is the oxygen of my life. I have hope in humanity.”

On the High Holy Days, and especially Yom Kippur, we pause and withdraw from the world to go deep within to see where we have been, where we are now and where we might be headed. We read the prophetic words of Isaiah: Is this the kind of fast I delight in? A fast merely to deprive one’s body? The answer is emphatically no. The fast, we are told, should lead to action — to helping the oppressed, to freeing the shackles of all those who are enslaved.

When we welcome in the new year, no matter where or exactly when, it is a time of humility and honesty. It is a time of finding the best in our nature and not losing ourselves in this tumultuous culture that demeans so many people, is filled with violence and often offers little hope.

It is reclaiming what is good, uplifting and the best of human nature.

Like with Meron, it is finding hope, even when it seems like it has disappeared, and knowing that if we do better, so will humanity.

Only through serious self-reflection can we emerge into the new year with broader perspective, renewed strength and a deeper resolve to uplift the most vulnerable in our midst.


Rabbi Lee Bycel is the author of the recently published “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope.” Details on the book and upcoming local events at refugeesinamerica.com.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco.