Leaders of the Reform Jewish movement yesterday announced a national drive to sponsor and resettle 1,800 Indochinese refugees by Thanksgiving.
The program, which marks the group's first nationally organized effort to aid in the resettlement of the Indochinese resettlement will concentrate on finding individual sponsors within Jewish congregations who will aid the families, the Jewish leaders said at a news conference yesterday.
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that Jews had a special interest in helping the Indochinese boat people, not only because of the Holocaust but particularly because of the Jewish experience aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939.
Some 900 Jews boarded the ship in an effort to flee Nazi Germany. But port after port refused to allow them to enter and they were eventually forced to return to Germany, where almost all eventually perished in German concentration camps.
"We as Jews feel particularly sensitive to this issue," Schindler said. "I was born in Nazi Germany. I know the fear and terror of people who knew if they remained they would be slaughtered. Jews were the first to occupy floating coffins, with no safe harbor for even the bones of our people."
The goal of 1,800 was set because it represents both twice the number of passengers on the 1939 voyage of death, as well as 100 times "chai," the Hebrew word for life that signifies the number 18.
Local Jewish leaders said yesterday they are excited about participating in the Hebrew union's special effort to aid in resettlement.
"This program tries to personalize some of the work by having individuals out of synagogues become personal sponsors," said Rabbi Matthew Simon of B'nai Israel in Rockville. "I think that would be of interest to many of the congregations that have the ability to create sponsoring groups."
Simon who also is cochairman of the Newcomer Resettlement Committee of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Washington, noted that the new program would supplement work the local Jewish community has carried on for several years in sponsoring Vietnamese families through the Jewish Social Service Agency. Nationally, the Jewish community has offered to resettle 6,000 refugees, Jewish leaders said yesterday.
The program already has been successful in Southern California, where sponsors are totally responsible for a family for up to six months. Contributions to support the families have come from Jews and non-Jews alike.
Jewish leaders said they have noticed a heightened interest in recent months in aiding Vietnamese boat people and other Indochinese refugees as the media have focused attention on their homeless plight.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, who attended the U.N. Geneva conference on refugees in July, recalled that when he stood before his Southern California congregation four years ago talking of his interest in aiding Indochinese refugees, he was greeted with silence, tension and consternation.
"They thought it wasn't a Jewish issue," Jacbos said.
But he stood before the same congregation this summer, he said, asking them, "How can you point a finger at the rest of the world and talk about the Holocaust when there are lives to be saved now?" The congregation now is sponsoring 11 refugee families and expects to aid many more, he said.