Last November, I was invited to a dinner cooked by a member of my synagogue, Herb Leventer. Together with his wife, Dvora Rabino, he prepared a meal fit for a king, but it wasn’t just any ordinary meal. This meal consisted of nearly two dozen authentically made Syrian dishes in his own kitchen — mezzes, dips, soups, entrees and, desserts, all dripping with Middle Eastern spices and aromas.
The purpose was a fundraiser on behalf of refugees, with proceeds going to HIAS, a resettlement organization. He had been inspired by a recent campaign by Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi and other celebrity chefs in England to “cook for Syria”. They had held supper clubs, charity bakes, cooking demos and restaurant dinners of Syrian food, with proceeds going to UNICEF UK’s Children of Syria Fund. There were around 20 of us gathered around two dining room tables, and the delicious dishes kept coming out featuring sumac, tamarind paste, pomegranate molasses and other specialty ingredients. At a time when the world was just beginning the conversation about refugees, after the tiny body of Alan Kurdi was found lying face down on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, it was a relief to be around others who cared as much as I did about the crisis.
The refugee crisis has not lessened, unfortunately. There are more refugees and forcibly displaced people today than any other time in modern history. These children, women, men and families face unimaginable challenges and struggle to access even the most basic of rights, like a safe place to live, an education, jobs and freedom.
Just when it felt like the situation was hopeless, I met a group of people who felt like me, in the community where I live, who are as passionate about the crisis. Together we would work to find a way to help. The result is Neighbors for Refugees, and our focus is refugee resettlement. We have already resettled one refugee from Pakistan in our area.
Recently we gathered at Leventer’s home again, this time to raise money for our own work. Not only are we aiming to resettle more refugees from anywhere in the world, but we are also helping refugees abroad and those who have settled in the U.S. who need our support. Refugees are being brought to our shore and are then left to fend for themselves after a very brief period of time. Babies are being born. Medical issues are being left untreated. Jobs are not being found. There are situations that must be dealt with, and it is up to groups like us to lend a helping hand.
Leventer prepared the food for well over a week, this time creating nearly three dozen dishes. He had experience from his many years of volunteering in the kitchen on Sunday mornings at God’s Love We Deliver on the Lower East Side. Homemade starters included kibbeh, vegetarian cigars, salatet zeitoon (olive salad), and an abundance of dips from muhammara to kishke khadra. Then he served goblets of cold cucumber-yogurt soup and delicious entrees such as agras samak wa batata (cod fish cakes), mahshi bi’laban (zucchini stuffed with rice and chickpeas) and harak osba’o (pasta with lentils).
In addition, there were Syrian salads and spreads such as fatouche and tabouli in bowls every which way you looked. On the menu, and on labels beside the dishes, Leventer expressed the dish’s meaning and ingredients. For example, harak osba’o literally means “burnt fingers” because “guests may be tempted by the smell to reach in and eat it from the pot.” So much love and thought went into the meal, and dessert was no exception. From Turkish delights to authentic Syrian delicacies, the house was beaming with sweet smells.
There were other reasons the evening was so special. For one thing, members of the community came from all over the area - from all faiths, from all professions. They shared one thing in common: a real interest in helping people find safe places to live. Our refugee also not only attended but he even prepared a few dishes from his homeland and shared stories about his time in America with our guests. In addition, the dinner took place during the month-long Ramadan holiday, so several of our guests chose it as the iftar — the meal Muslims eat to break the fast each night. There was no alcohol on the menu. Instead, Herb served schraab b’naan, a melon-mint yogurt drink, which is a Syrian summer drink, as well as schraab el’loz, a rosewater-infused almond drink.
We also had a journalist named Monique John, from our local TV station, LMCTV, who created a story on our efforts. Watch it below:
Friendships were made at this dinner. Connections were made. So much came out of this well executed and delicious evening. We hope to have more of them in the future. To check out our work, head to neighborsforrefugees.com.