Why we work

Alyssa Banford

By Alyssa Banford

After finishing a long workday and needing some down time from the intensity of the last few days, I headed to a friend’s to relax and celebrate.  Not long after I arrived, my friend and his roommate were reliving an experience earlier that day where they felt short-changed and disrespected by one of their industry colleagues.  Without missing a heartbeat, the roommate made his declaration: “Well, what do you expect?  He’s a Jew.” 

Now, I have heard this more than once in my lifetime and each time have spoken up. This Thursday was my first experience hearing this particular anti-Semitic sentiment after starting my current job.  Where these statements used to leave me with shaking anger and heart-breaking sadness, I felt something new this time: pride for my people.

I have had the privilege over the past year to create volunteer programming at the Jewish Community Relations Council. The job invigorates and challenges me, and there is enough work to keep more than a few people busy.  

Being in this position allows me a better understanding of who we are as a people, both our history and our current affairs.  What I have learned above all else is that our community is so very strong.  Although we hold a diverse array of opinions, we are not shy in making our voices heard and fighting for what we believe.

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Last Wednesday, the JCRC and our interfaith partners organized a vigil to remember the lost lives of the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger ship carrying Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.  After admitting only 28 passengers, the ship was turned away from Cuba.  The vessel then set sail for the United States, requesting refuge for the passengers.  As the ship approached the shores of Miami and the passengers caught sight of the lights of the city, they received word that the U.S. State Department would not allow their entry.  

After being denied entry into Canada as well, the ship had no other option but to make the journey back.  Men, women, children, whole families, were turned away and forced back to war-torn Europe.  Some managed to escape through other routes, but 256 of those passengers were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust. Their fate sealed because of closed borders.

On Thursday, we held one of two orientations for volunteers of the Jewish Coalition for New Americans Day Camp at the International Institute.  In its second year, the camp allows New American parents, many of whom have been in the United States for only a few weeks, the chance to continue English classes at the institute unencumbered by worries of child care.  Last year, over 100 volunteers provided the warmest welcome imaginable to our new neighbors.

So sitting on my friend’s couch and hearing this statement with the day camp and the M.S. St. Louis fresh in my mind, facts from the Crusades, the pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, and countless other instances of displacement and mass murder began filling my thoughts. Did he not know how we have struggled?  Did he not know that despite our history, we have not given up or stopped caring?  Did he not know of the extraordinary work that our community is doing to make this world a better place?

We are tasked with taking a stand when we see injustice and oppression because we ourselves know the weight of injustice and oppression.  We remembered at the vigil that while we have found a home in the United States today, others are still searching.  At the day camp, we looked into the eyes of giggling children who had escaped terrifying situations and received tear-filled gratitude from parents wanting the best for their family, and we saw reflections of ourselves.  

We are not apathetic and we do not stand idly by.  We give of ourselves.  We work for the betterment of our neighborhood, city, country and world.  We do this because we are Jews. 

Alyssa Banford is the Senior Engagement Associate at the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis. Among many other events, she is the staff person for the JCNA Day Camp and would welcome questions on how to get involved.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 314-442-3894.