Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees

For many, the weight of the world’s problems can seem so overwhelming as to be paralyzing. But the response to these problems by Georgette Bennett, founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, has been “recognizing where there’s a need and imagining solutions.”[1] A child of HolocaustHolocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocau... survivors, Bennett has been a strong advocate for refugees around the world. In 2013, she met with Alan Gill, CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to discuss how the Jewish community could respond to one of the most pressing issues of the day: the Syrian refugee crisis. After that initial conversation, Bennett went on to found the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), an interfaith response to raise awareness about, and humanitarian aid for, those affected by the crisis. The effort has also brought an unexpected Syrian-Israeli partnership to public attention.

The Multifaith Alliance is a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, an organization that seeks to combat religious prejudice in everyday life and to find real-world solutions to conflict and violence.[2] The organization was founded by Bennett in the wake of her husband Marc Tanenbaum’s death in 1992. His legacy as a pioneer in interfaith work inspires the Tanenbaum Center and the Multifaith Alliance project. MFA’s mission is to “mobilize global multifaith support to alleviate the Syrian humanitarian crisis, heighten awareness of its growing dangers, and advance future stability in the region.”[3] MFA has utilized a number of means for achieving this goal, including working with vetted groups providing relief on the ground, briefing lawmakers and elected officials, and using social media to raise public awareness. MFA makes it clear that it is not taking political sides in the conflict and is concerned only with humanitarian issues.

Before the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage in mainstream media in fall 2015, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees was committed to raising public awareness and keeping the issue alive within the public consciousness. Organizers say this is a commitment they will keep long after the media coverage wanes. As of the summer of 2015, the civil war in Syria has resulted in over 11 million refugees and internally displaced persons.[4] Many are in refugee camps in nearby countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that are struggling to meet the needs of this major influx of people. In light of the increasing number of deaths of Syrian refugees attempting to flee the region and the increased attacks by Islamic terrorists, keeping the public educated and informed with accurate information is a daily challenge, said RabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... Eric J. Greenberg, MFA’s director of communications, programs and interfaith relations. “It is stunning that only 70 years after World War II and the displacement of millions of people, that the world in 2015 is dealing with a monumental refugee crisis—which sadly is eliciting similar xenophobic and bigoted reactions from politicians and others,” he said. “These prejudiced comments and actions must be countered by religious and humanitarian leaders and people of good will to help those in need.”[5]

In order to help spread awareness and mobilize support, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees continues to build a coalition of faith-based and secular groups. Although MFA is a small operation, with only a handful of full-time staff, this coalition allows them to have an influence that well surpasses their size. Initially a coalition of Jewish organizations, MFA now includes approximately 40 national and local religious organizations and secular nonprofits. This expansion was possible thanks to Bennett’s broad network of contacts after years of involvement in interfaith work. RabbiRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion. Greenberg calls the work of MFA “interfaith with impact” because faith groups are coming together for major humanitarian action and not only for dialogue.[6] However, Greenberg stresses that action and dialogue should complement each other, helping build stronger relationships and capitalizing on partnerships to make an impact.

In the wake of the Syrian crisis, an unexpected partnership between Syrians and Israelis is emerging, and longstanding differences are being put aside in order to respond to the humanitarian need. MFA has worked with two activists, one Syrian and the other Israeli, who are together bringing attention to the plight of Syrian refugees. Amin Ahmed and Anat Gilan established makeshift hospitals to help Syrians and founded an Israeli NGO, respectively.[7] Working together through MFA, they have briefed lawmakers in the London Parliament and the Canadian Parliament and spoke to students and professors at HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written. University in JerusalemJerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical.... Bennett points out that the story of these two activists and how they are working toward a shared goal is not unique; rather, it is part of larger efforts by individuals from these two nations who “have been able to rise above politics to work together to alleviate suffering.”[8]

The Multifaith Alliance, through their work in New York and with Amin and Ahmed, is a powerful example of work that Rabbi Greenberg believes would have been unheard of just a few decades ago. It is work for which Georgette Bennett and others have paved a new kind of path forward. For Greenberg, what the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees is doing “shows a way for the future of how we need to cooperate.”[9]


[1] Joyce Dubensky. Phone Interview with author. 30 July 2015. ↩︎

[2] “About Us.” Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. https://tanenbaum.org/about-us/. Accessed 24 September 2015. ↩︎

[3] “Mission Statement.” The Multifaith Alliance. http://www.multifaithalliance.org/#!alliance/c1jdz. Accessed 4 September 2015. ↩︎

[4] “UNHCR: Total number of Syrian refugees exceeds four million for first time.” 9 July 2015. www.unhcr.org/559d67d46.html. Accessed 5 January 2016. ↩︎

[5] Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg. Email with author. 18 November 2015. ↩︎

[6] Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg. Phone interview with author. 1 July 2015. ↩︎

[7] As here, these two activists use pseudonyms to protect their work. ↩︎

[8] Bennett, Georgette. “An Unusual Religious Alliance to Aid Refugees.” The Wall Street Journal. 26 March 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/georgette-bennett-an-unusual-religious-alliance-to-aid-refugees-1427411283. Accessed 4 September 2015. ↩︎

[9] Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg. Phone interview with author. 6 July 2015. ↩︎