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Jewish and Muslim teens, two Reform synagogues help celebrate refugees’ first birthday in U.S.

Refugee children settled by Jewish Vocational Services enjoyed celebrating their birthday at last year’s party with cake, games, balloons and face painting.

Refugees who have been resettled in the Kansas City area within the past year will celebrate their very first birthday in America on Sunday, Jan. 21. Congregations B’nai Jehudah and Beth Torah are partnering with Jewish Vocational Services to make this happen.

In many cultures, birthdays are not even acknowledged. Rabbi Javier Cattapan of Beth Torah said because of refugees’ situations they did not have the opportunity to celebrate anything, let alone birthdays.

“This is both a way for us to celebrate birthdays and to teach them about celebrating birthdays now that they are part of the American culture, so they will know this is how we do it here,” he said.

JVS started the Refugee Birthday Party three years ago, one of the goals being to help assimilate refugees and their families.

B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi Daniel Kirzane said in keeping with the congregation’s commitment to education, advocacy and support for refugees in the United States, they reached out to JVS last year to find some projects that would be good for the community to work on. JVS suggested the birthday party.

So B’nai Jehudah partnered with JVS and Della Lamb to sponsor the party. This year, they have added Beth Torah to the mix. In addition, Jewish and Muslim teens are helping to make the party a success and using it as an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding in the community, said Rabbi Kirzane.

Jewish teens from the two congregations and Muslim teens from the Crescent Peace Society have been working together on social action projects in order to get to know one another, Beth Torah’s Rabbi Cattapan explained. It began with the Crescent Peace Society’s Meet a Muslim program, which had never been done at a synagogue until last year when Beth Torah invited them.

Some of the parents who attended the event proposed a teen-only Meet a Muslim and the Crescent Peace Society said yes, Rabbi Cattapan continued.

“Part of interfaith dialogue is that you do it regularly, not just once,” he said. “It has to be something where you get to know each other slowly and learn about each other’s culture from individuals, not just books and classes.”

As a result of that encounter, the Crescent Peace Society was interested in doing more things together, like a mitzvah project.

“We said we’re doing this birthday party for refugees that we think will be great and should deepen the knowledge between the two groups,” said Rabbi Cattapan. “So we proposed it to the youth groups and they got involved.”

Rabbi Cattapan said working with refugees sounded like a good, non-controversial event where the Jewish and Muslim teen groups could get to know each other and continue doing social action projects together.

“I do think there is a connection here between the Jewish community and the Muslim community in that so many of us from both communities came to this country as immigrants,” he said. “So it’s a good way to give back to the community, kind of pay it forward.

“We of all people, the Jews and the Muslims, should be sensitive to the needs of the refugees. So this is something we can use to teach about our own experiences. Somebody helped us along the way at one point so it’s good to give back”

About 200 new refugees participated in last year’s birthday party and Rabbi Kirzane said they’re expecting as many this year.

There’s no way of knowing how many countries will be represented at the Refugee Birthday Party, but Rabbi Kirzane said at last year’s event all those present sang the Happy Birthday song in their native language and there were about a dozen languages represented.

“A birthday celebration isn’t part of many of the indigenous cultures the refugees are coming from,” said Rabbi Kirzane. “It’s part of American culture so it’s part of the process of learning about American culture and what an American birthday party might feel like.”

The party is focused on children of all ages more than adults, Rabbi Cattapan pointed out. He said there will be plenty of gifts. Any member of the general public can provide a gift of an amount between $10 and $15 and drop it off at the front office at B’nai Jehudah or the drop box at Beth Torah.

The gifts will be wrapped and then delivered to the refugees who attend the party. They need not specify what age group they’re for. If they are not age appropriate, the refugees can exchange them with each other.

Rabbi Kirzane said the Jewish community of Kansas City, B’nai Jehudah, Beth Torah and the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City have all asserted their commitment to protecting refugees as a primary Jewish value.

“We Jews have been refugees ourselves; we read about our own refugee status in the Torah; and throughout history we’ve sought refuge time and time again,” he said. “It’s really essential to what it means to be Jewish, to look out for those who are most vulnerable in society. And the birthday party is one small way we can live out our greatest Jewish value.”

Refugee Birthday Party

On Sunday, Jan. 21, there will be a Refugee Birthday Party at Della Lamb Community Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Congregations B’nai Jehudah and Beth Torah are partnering with Jewish Vocational Services to help ease the transition to the United States for refugees and their families.

The public is not invited; however, volunteers are needed the day of the event. There will be four two-hour shift options from which to choose. To find out which shifts are still available and to sign up, go to beth-torah.org/social_justice/jvs_birthday_party.aspx and scroll down to ‘volunteer here,’ or go directly to signupgenius.com/go/10c094fa4a92aa5f58-20181.

Gifts for all age groups of $10 to $15 are also needed so each child can receive a gift on his or her “first” birthday. Gifts may be dropped off at B’nai Jehudah’s front office or the drop box at Beth Torah.