David Lubell, founder and executive director of Welcoming America, was named the 2017 recipient of The Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual award presented to a humanitarian under the age of 50 who creates a global impact with the backbone of Jewish values.
The announcement of the recipient came a day before World Refugee Day on June 20. The award includes a $100,000 prize.
Established in 2009, Welcoming America is a national nonprofit that helps communities reach their full potential by becoming welcoming to immigrants and refugees. It works with municipal governments and other nonprofits to create welcoming climates and institutions for immigrants and refugees by developing dialogues with longtime residents to reduce misunderstandings and fears.
Welcoming America works with more than 160 communities in the United States. The organization’s model is now spreading to communities in Australia and Germany.
It all began in 2006 when Lubell — a Wynnewood native who belonged to Main Line Reform Temple — created a more localized version in Nashville, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. That later became Welcoming Tennessee as he saw the immigrant community expand there.
“There had been a backlash within the local [Nashville] population, and so it was not a very welcoming climate back then,” said Lubell, who is now based in Decatur, Ga. “Instead of focusing on making sure immigrants have English classes and job training, things that everybody was doing, we decided to focus on the local population, like longtime Nashvillians, and figure out how to reduce their fears and to contain and then get rid of backlash and replace it with a real welcome.”
The community started to change over a few years, so Lubell expanded.
His inspiration came from the year prior he spent in Ecuador, which he said transformed his professional trajectory and thinking.
He taught English there, and was welcomed by a host family and the local community.
“I got to experience the power of welcoming and what it could be,” said 41-year-old Lubell. “My experience being welcomed in Ecuador made me want to make sure that everyone arriving in this country can get that same kind of welcome.”
Lubell has always been helping others, working with homeless shelters in Philadelphia and community organizing through high school and college (when he wasn’t working as a busboy at Al Dar Bistro in Bala Cynwyd).
He comes from a family influenced by social justice — his great-grandfather helped found the Reconstructionist movement in the United States — and the concept of “welcoming the stranger” was always important in his family.
“Making sure everyone is included — not just immigrants but everyone — is something that’s always been important to me,” he added.
He said that being honored with this award continues that Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger, as well as the work he and the organization have done.
“It’s the recognition of … the power of a movement of people who want to be welcoming in a time, especially now when immigrants and refugees are under threat. It’s more important than ever for the Jewish-American community to be really pushing forward the idea that we all need to belong.”
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