Reconstructionist shul sponsors four Syrian families

Ensemble Zaman will play traditional Syrian music at a benefit concert for refugees
Ensemble Zaman will play traditional Syrian music at a benefit concert for refugees

MONTREAL – When members of Congregation Dorshei Emet began talking in the fall about sponsoring Syrian refugees, Laurie Usheroff was doubtful the small synagogue would be able to raise enough money for even one family.

She has happily been proven wrong – the congregation, also known as the Reconstructionist Synagogue, has collected enough money to sponsor four families. An application has been submitted to the Quebec government for the first family, and the paperwork should be completed by the end of January for the other three, said Usheroff, who co-chairs the congregation’s Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Project with Garry Beitel.

“The response has been overwhelming,” she said, and that’s been without any formal launch or announcement of the project.

Since the end of October, about 150 donations have been made, most of them from the congregation’s membership, which numbers under 500 units.

READ: Montreal Jews and Muslims unite to help Syrian refugees

“We also received cheques from friends, colleagues, and even neighbours who heard what we were doing and wanted to help,” Usheroff said. The money often came from people making a real sacrifice, she added.

Dorshei Emet, like all private sponsors, had to have a government-prescribed amount in the bank before making an application. Sponsorships are based on the size of the family and the age of the children. The cost of the shul’s selected families ranges from $20,000 to $31,000 each, she said. “They range from a young couple with an infant to a family with three kids.”

The families are now living in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to her knowledge, on their own or perhaps with relatives. “They are not in refugee camps, as far as a I know, but they have been moving around for a while.”

Dorshei Emet identified the families through the Syrian Kids Foundation, a Montreal-based non-profit organization created in 2012, initially to build and support a school in Turkey for the children of Syrian refugees. It now provides humanitarian aid to all Syrian refugees regardless of their religion or affiliation.

All four of Dorshei Emet’s families have relatives in Montreal, Usheroff said. Some have previously sponsored other relatives and can’t afford to bring over others, some simply don’t have the means, she said.

The presence of these relatives will be invaluable when, as Usheroff puts it, “the real work begins” of helping the families settle – a 12-month commitment for sponsors.

It’s not known when the first family will arrive, but Usheroff expects it will be at least six months from now. All of the families are Muslim, but Usheroff stressed that religion wasn’t a factor in their selection. Dorshei Emet did insist the families be aware they were being sponsored by a shul. “They were all very grateful and thanked us profusely,” she said. “I think our religion was of as little concern to them as theirs was to us.”

Choosing from the refugees the Syrian Kids Foundation provided was difficult for the shul’s sponsorship project committee, which has about 18 members. “We selected on the basis of need and who we thought would be successful here,” Usheroff said, “but everybody needs help.” The livelihoods of those selected vary from pharmacist to engineer to car dealer, she said.

Dorshei Emet has a history of refugee sponsorship. In the 1970s, it was the Vietnamese “boat people” and, two decades later, Latin Americans. “A few members were around when we helped the Vietnamese,” Usheroff said.

READ: Toronto synagogues mobilize to help Syrian refugees

Congregants will have to mobilize when the Syrians get here, and subcommittees devoted to housing, employment, education and other practical resettlement matters are being formed. “Officially, our responsibility is for 12 months, but possibly it will be longer,” she said.

On Jan. 23, Dorshei Emet will hold a “cross-cultural musical celebration” featuring Ensemble Zaman, a local group that plays traditional Syrian music, and the Syrian pianist Mohammad Abdou, who arrived as a refugee in Montreal six months ago, as well as The Musical Chairs, a folk group performing old-style hootenanny. The fundraiser’s suggested contribution is $20.

Another local shul is doing its part for refugees. Congregation Adath Israel’s Rabbi Michael Whitman said his appeal for clothes and personal care products last month bore fruit. “We had a huge response: several hundred toothbrushes, eight to 10 large garbage bags filled with new winter clothes,” he said. “The person collecting for Syrian refugees in Jordan [someone known to the rabbi] could not take everything we collected.”