SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – GLOUCESTER – Although Jews make up a small percentage of the population of Cape Ann, the Jewish community is playing a large role in supporting immigrants and refugees. Jewish volunteers and professionals are quite clear that their Jewish background and values are key.
Cape Ann has been populated by successive waves of immigrants since the first Europeans arrived in 1623. The most recent development began last November, when Peggy Russell, a Gloucester resident, was told by a Lynn-based immigrant placement agency that an Afghan family would be arriving the next week at Logan Airport. Could she pick them up? They would be settling in Gloucester.
Russell asked her neighbor, Susan Erony, to help. (Erony is Jewish; Russell is not.) For the next several months, the two were the main contacts for the Afghan family, as well as for a family of Syrians who had also just arrived.
“We got them into school, we got them English lessons, we dealt with their landlord,” Erony recalled. “It’s been quite a journey, but it’s been incredibly rewarding.”
In time, the circle broadened. Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim set up an Interfaith Committee to help refugees and immigrants.
More volunteers joined in; faith groups and volunteers have raised funds for the recent arrivals. A Congolese family also has been part of the mix.
Temple Ahavat Achim has continued to help coordinate nonprofit organizations and individual volunteers. It has provided more than a half dozen volunteers to an English Language Learners program run by Wellspring House, in cooperation with the Sawyer Free Library. Wellspring, which began as a shelter for women and children, now supports families in securing stable housing and helping people improve their job opportunities through education and job training.
“The English program is the first rung of the ladder,” said Melissa Dimond, Wellspring executive director. “It’s an early resource for people who are newly arrived in the U.S. They can’t work until they have fluency.
Then they transfer into other programs. either ours or others.”
Dimond is Jewish, as are a large percentage of the ELL volunteers. “The reason why I do what I do professionally at all has a lot to do with being Jewish,” Dimond said. “ I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. To me, there’s no option. I must be responsive.”
Erony, an artist whose father and grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants, said, “I really feel comfortable with people who are considered outsiders. My art work is about that. I’ve been trying to understand immigration and otherness all my life.”
Dale Rosen, who coordinates Temple Ahavat Achim’s involvement and who works with a refugee from Congo, said, “It’s something concrete I can do to contribute to welcoming people at a time when our government has withdrawn the welcome mat. I want to welcome people to this country the way my grandparents were welcomed. These people were facing death in their own country the way that my people were facing death.
“Whatever I can do to help will carry on my Jewish tradition in the best possible way. And my mother would be very happy.”
To contribute, visit wellspringhouse.org.