HIAS PA Clients Celebrate Thanksgiving Virtually

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The Lullaby Project presents a music video during Thankful Together with Cathryn Miller-Wilson and Charlie Heil. | Photo by Sophie Panzer
HIAS Pennsylvania didn’t want its newly arrived immigrant and refugee clients to miss out on their first Thanksgiving in the United States, even if large, in-person gatherings are out of the question.

The staff and board organized Thankful Together, a virtual celebration featuring meal drop-offs, prerecorded performances and Zoom breakout rooms organized by language, on Nov. 22.

The celebration started when volunteers began delivering home-cooked meals to the homes of 20 immigrant and refugee families. Later that day, guests gathered on Zoom to hear addresses from HIAS PA staff and watch prerecorded performances by Philadelphia arts organizations.


The event was hosted by Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson and Charlie Heil, adult education lead instructor.

“Whether or not you are Jewish, or an immigrant, we have all been strangers once and, therefore, know deep in our souls the importance of welcoming,” Miller-Wilson said.

Board President Carol Gantman said the organization’s refugee Thanksgiving tradition traces back many years.

“It was thought that it would be great for all new arrivals from the previous year to be able to celebrate with us at HIAS PA their first authentic Thanksgiving in America,” she said.

In past years, HIAS PA partnered with community organizations and synagogues to find space and supplies, coordinated about 100 people to set up and cook, and arranged for kid-friendly activities like face painting and storytelling, as well as performing arts acts for adult guests.
Immigrant and refugee families were encouraged to bring dishes from their countries of origin to serve alongside turkey and pumpkin pie.

HIAS PA clients who arrived in the United States after the previous year’s Thanksgiving but before the upcoming one were invited to attend, regardless of what stage they are at in the immigration process.
Gantman noted that HIAS PA staff and board chose the name “Thankful Together” to acknowledge that many schools do not teach the history of marginalized people in the United States, particularly the history of Native Americans who are portrayed in the Thanksgiving story.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym sent Thanksgiving greetings for this year’s celebration in a recorded message thanking immigrants for their contributions to the city. Gym is vice chair of Local Progress, a network that advocates for immigrant protections like sanctuary cities and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

“Having attended HIAS Pennsylvania’s Thanksgiving events in years past, it’s always been my greatest honor to welcome immigrant families to our communal table,” Gym said. “Immigrant families make our city so incredibly strong. More than a quarter of all Philadelphia residents are immigrants, or have at least one immigrant parent. And our city truly could not be what it is without you.”

Participants from The Lullaby Project, an organization that pairs new parents with music artists to create personal lullabies for their children, presented their ballads in music videos.

Culture Shock, the dance troupe at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, submitted a dance routine, as did K-pop cover dance group L8NITE and culture nonprofits Asian Arts Initiative and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture.

The Carver Choir of Carver Engineering and Science high school submitted a performance of “This Little Light of Mine,” with each singer’s part recorded separately in their homes. House singer Lady Alma submitted an onstage performance of her song “Keep it Moving” and the band Worldtown Soundsystem sent a kaleidoscopic underwater music video for its song “Freedom.”

Artist House choreographer and dancer Asya Zlatina submitted a solo performance to Fayerlech by the Jewish folk group Veselei Igraii. She used to listen to their album “Bazetsn di kale” with her grandmother. The song was her first exposure to Yiddish, and she was working on choreographing a group performance for it before the pandemic hit. She turned it into a solo performance to accommodate social distancing this fall.

Zlatina’s family left the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States when she was a child. She said Thanksgiving is a big deal for her family and one of the holidays they gather for every year. She grew up loving “Molly’s Pilgrim,” a children’s book about a young Jewish girl who creates a Thanksgiving project honoring her immigrant heritage.

“That book was always very meaningful to me as someone who comes from an Eastern European Jewish background,” she said.

After the performances, the event divided into Zoom breakout rooms based on language, with sections for English, Spanish, Arabic, Kiswahili, Pashto and Ukrainian. Interpreters for each language translated the event in live chat rooms.

In the English-speaking room, Miller-Wilson asked participants to reflect on their favorite performances and what they were thankful for during this difficult year. Guests mentioned friends, family, good health and a new baby.

spanzer@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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