Beth Emet members Jessie MacDonald, Kathy Kaberon and Alison Finkel amid boxes of donations in what will soon be the refugee family's new apartment.

“Tikkun Olam.” It’s a Hebrew phrase from Jewish tradition which has come to mean “repair the world.”

While it may be impossible to repair the entire world, aiding a small part of it can have tremendous impact.

On Friday, such an act of “tikkun olam” begins, from Evanston’s Beth Emet, The Free Synagogue.

That’s when a family of Afghan refugees will arrive. More than 100 members of Beth Emet have pitched in to furnish an apartment, buy clothing and food, and will also help teach and mentor the new arrivals as they figure out their new country.

 Modesto Duarte and Craig Garfield take a break while assembling a bedroom dresser.

Congregation member Alison Finkel is leading the volunteer effort. She says the stories of Afghans trying to flee their homeland after American troops withdraw “were extremely moving.”

“They have been through unimaginable stresses, and now they face this unimaginable task of starting a new life here,” Fikel says.

But other than learning that the family has a father, mother, and four young children, “we really know nothing about them,” Finkel says. Urban? Rural? Speak English? All a mystery so far.

The mystery will start resolving itself when Finkel and a case worker meet the family, which is arriving by bus at O’Hare Airport.

Finkel believes they have been staying at a U.S. military base, either in Wisconsin or Indiana, but that too won’t be learned until after the first hello.

Beth Emet is one of about a dozen Chicagoland synagogues which are each supporting an Afghan refugee family, in coordination with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Jewish Children’s and Family Services (JCFS).

Working with HIAS has special meaning to many Jews, because wheir ancestors fled persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS helped welcome them to America.

“Many of our families descended from immigrants,” says Beth Emet’s rabbi, Amy Memis-Foler.

“We feel an obligation to help the refugee,” she adds.

Beth Emet has done that in the past, with both Syrian and Rohingya families.

Rabbi Memis-Foler says there’s another Jewish value in play here besides “tikkun olam.”

There is also “hachnasat hageir,” or “welcoming the stranger.”

“We were strangers in a strange land once,” the rabbi says, referring to the biblical Land of Egypt.

Last summer, when the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was under way, with all the painful images of Afghan citizens desperately trying to get out, Memis-Foler gave a sermon sharing her own family’s story.

Her grandmother was fleeing from the Ukraine in the 1920s, and was saved by a stranger who pulled her out of a river by her hair.

Then HIAS assisted when her grandmother arrived in America.

Relating that to current refugees, the rabbi says, “I feel a sense of urgency to pay it forward.”

It’s highly unlikely that the refugees are Jewish. In fact, the Beth Emet members may be the first Jews they’ll ever meet. But Memis-Foler says, “We don’t do this only if they’re Jewish. We do this because we are.”

Welcoming the stranger to Cook County, Illinois, USA will start with small steps, like an Afghan meal from Evanston’s Kabul House restaurant.

Finkel’s 12-year old daughter made little signs for the apartment, and picked out stuffed animials for the children, who are ages 18 months to seven years.

Finkel says she “sees little ways” that her children “want to make a soft landing for the family.”

“We also built a lot of Ikea furniture,” Finkel laughs.

Future mentoring includes helping with things we take for granted, such as registering for school, getting a library card and Ventra ticket, and finding a job.

Finkel says she hopes the apartment will “be a sanctuary” for the family.

“If we can make the space feel like home for them, secure and safe, it’s one little way we can make things better.”

In other words, “Tikkun Olam.”

“For me,” Finkel says, “this is a way I connect to my faith. Here is a way to try to make the world a better place.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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