Inhabiting the Soul of a Stranger: Ways to Help Refugees This Passover and Beyond


By Rabbi Laura Rumpf, Director of Project KAVOD 

Traditional clothing, warm clothing, baby clothing, favorite clothing, dirty clothing, wet clothing, layered clothing, My turban. It guards my identity, and my faith. Without it, I’m vulnerable. 

Photo of my father. Memories of my father. Baby food, marshmallows, bread that wasn’t fully baked. Tea set, for the others on the boat: we’re thirsty, tired and afraid. 

We were out in just ten minutes. 

I escaped with my children, sister, brother, husband, wife. 

With my soul, With my smile, With my life. 

This excerpted list was inspired by first-hand conversations with recent refugees about the items they carried with them when forced to flee their homes.

In this season of Passover, I cannot help but hear our ancestors’ voices in these words – the haste of packing only what you can carry, while striving to preserve the memories and identity markers that make up a life. 

We are called on no less than 36 times throughout Torah, to identify compassionately with the stranger. “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger,” we hear over and over again. In Parsha Mishpatim, we learn two key reasons for this command – one we know well from the Passover story. “Because you (we) were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exod. 22:20). We know the injustice of displacement in our Jewish DNA. This explanation is significant, but incomplete, in that it implies our sense of “otherness” belongs to a distant past. 

The second time we hear the command, however, the meaning goes deeper: You shall not oppress a stranger, ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר, ki atem yadatem nefesh ha ger, for you know the feelings (literally ‘the soul’) of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9).  

Yadah is one of the most intimate Hebrew words we have – implying an interconnectedness between beings. In this explanation we are called to access the part of our own hearts that still feel lonely or strange sometimes, not in a distant past, but in the present. We are invited to feel compassion for those neglected parts of us, as well as for the stranger in our midst. 

When we inhabit the soul of a stranger, we connect with curiosity to another’s yearnings, sufferings and joys. These encounters can become our greatest teachers, provided we feel safe enough to step closer, and pay attention to what’s being offered to us in this uncharted territory. 

R’ Sheila Peltz Weinberg, author of God Loves the Stranger, notes: “In our everyday lives, the stranger is sometimes the refugee, sometimes the person of color, age, youth, accent, small or large body, deafness, blindness, baldness, or different view, different neighborhood, different family or lover, profession, or power. There is no limit to who the stranger can be. In fact, some of our most challenging strangers may be those we live with and those we have loved or tried to love.”

I know I’m not alone this Passover in feeling particularly identified with and heartbroken for Ukrainian refugees fleeing by the thousands to Israel, Mexico, the United States, and throughout the world. At JFS, we will be preparing to welcome and resettle Ukrainian refugees, as we have done and continue to do for Afghan refugees. We have staff and clients who have a deep connection to Ukraine and Russia with familial and ancestral ties to the region; staff who are Ukrainian and whose family are in the area or have fled. At this moment, there is a limit to how we can mobilize our wider community to support them, as there are still great restrictions on how many Ukrainians are being admitted, particularly to the Pacific Northwest. Our JFS resettlement team reminds us that, while we may be frustrated by inability to assist directly, there are still over 20 million refugees in the world, plus tens of millions of more internally displaced people needing support. We don’t want to lose sight of the very real crisis for people who have been waiting months and even years to come to the United States, even as our eyes meet the eyes of Ukrainians on the news and we see our kin. 

I am heartened to hear from my colleagues at JFS that there are tangible ways we can take steps to alleviate the burdens on all displaced people immediately, while awaiting more actionable calls to support those who have most recently fled Ukraine. 

Here are four concrete ways our community can help support refugees right now:  

Make a gift to support JFS ongoing efforts to resettle Ukrainian refugees, Afghan refugees and others, as part of the humanitarian crises we’re seeing in many parts of the world  

Help us organize “welcome backpacks” for unaccompanied minors who are coming to the United States, and who we help through our Unaccompanied Minors program, along with young people who are survivors of labor and sex trafficking.   

Support emergency and ongoing fundraising efforts by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) to assist Ukrainian Jews. Read more here.  

Give to the HIAS crisis response in Ukraine. 

Returning to the list of items that refugees fled with in haste, I’m particularly moved to imagine packing backpacks with new, desirable items for teens who have come as unaccompanied minors. In 2021, JFS launched a program that is currently the only one in Washington state to provide ongoing support to foreign national minors and young adults who have experienced trafficking, whether through sex or labor. If our collective efforts can send them to school with the materials to thrive, Dayenu – it will be enough. 

This Passover season, may we help each other welcome and know the soul of the stranger, within us and among us, and may remember our stories of freedom are intertwined. 

Chag Pesach Sameach! 

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