Synagogues mobilize to help Syrian refugees

Syrians in the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO
Syrians in the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey (SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO)

Early in the summer, a reporter returned from Lebanon with news about a Kurdish family that had fled Syria and was living in a barn. They were working as field hands to earn their keep, but none of the three children attended school, conditions were miserable and their prospects were bleak.

It so happened that the congregation at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto was looking for a way to help Syrian refugees, and the Kurdish family fit the bill.

Darchei Noam was among the first Jewish groups to mobilize to sponsor a Syrian refugee family, and as a result, the process is pretty well advanced. All the documentation has been completed and sent to the processing office in Winnipeg. If approved, the family could be in Canada in a matter of months.

Though perhaps the earliest, Darchei Noam is certainly not the only Jewish group or congregation sponsoring Syrian refugees. Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto, which is a sponsorship agreement holder (SAH), counts at least 17 congregations, private groups and individuals who are at various stages of sponsoring refugees.

Sponsors are expected to raise $27,000 to maintain a family of four and $29,700 for a family of five. That doesn’t include additional travel and medical costs, and other expenses needed to assist the refugee families through the first year or two after their arrival in Canada.

In addition to the families and individuals at Darchei Noam, the families and individuals of other congregations and groups operating under JIAS auspices include groups at Beth Tzedec Congregation, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am, BFG Group, Temple Emanu-El, City Shul, families and individuals at Holy Blossom Temple, First Narayever Congregation, Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School (and friends), Scadding Court Community Centre, Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, Temple Kol Ami, Danforth Jewish Circle, and Ve’ahavta.

The response from the Jewish community has been extensive, particularly after a photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi was featured prominently in the international media, said Lia Kisel, language and settlement director at JIAS Toronto. The organization fielded hundreds of calls from people asking how they could help, and JIAS organized an information night attended by more than 100 people.

The people at Darchei Noam got started last May, and to date, they’ve raised “a good deal more than $29,500,”said Suzanne Silk Klein, co-chair of the synagogue’s refugee sponsorship program.

They’ve exceeded that base amount to such an extent that “we’re hoping we can deal with a second family,” she said.

A number of synagogue members have volunteered to assist in the integration of the family once they arrive, helping provide medical and dental care, assistance in navigating the education system, help with shopping and other daily tasks, Silk Klein said.

Silk Klein acknowledged there were discussions at the shul over who should be sponsored, but “very few people said to me, ‘Do we really want to sponsor X, Y and Z?’ I said this is a humanitarian need. Nobody turned me down for money because they were a Muslim family.”

All applicants will be “seriously vetted” and the family, when they heard they were being sponsored by a Jewish congregation in Toronto, said, “‘I can’t believe that people who don’t know us, help us,’” Silk Klein said.

Concerns over the background of potential sponsored refugees were raised at Beth Tikvah, said Rabbi Jarrod Grover, who delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Jewish principle of helping the stranger in need.

Rabbi Grover said he has been in contact with JIAS and hopes to piggy-back on the Darchei Noam effort by sponsoring a member of the Kurdish group’s extended family to Canada.

“The fact it’s Kurdish made it easier to raise the money,” he said. “The Kurds are a persecuted minority, It’s a different story. There is no history of Kurdish anti-Semitism or opposition to Israel.”

So far the shul has raised close to $20,000.

“People can identify with this situation. It is part of our story, and as Jews, we have a responsibility to help,” Rabbi Grover said.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein said members of City Shul wanted to get involved, because “Jewish values propelled us to ‘know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” she said in an email interview with The CJN.

Though the shul has only “200 membership units,” 70 have volunteered to help and an equal number have provided funds, she stated.

Following her Yom Kippur sermon on the issue, City Shul members raised more than $80,000, including one donation of $27,600, some in the $2,000 to $5,000 range, and many between $18 and $1,800.

Rabbi Goldstein doesn’t know who the shul will be sponsoring, though “we hope, [it will be] a large family with both parents and grandparents.”

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl said one of his High Holiday sermons at Beth Tzedec focused on the Syrian refugee issue.

The synagogue’s executive and board of governors agreed to take up the cause during the summer. The shul made contact with the relatives of an Ismaili Muslim family who have relatives who fled Syria and were living in Turkey.

The Ismailis practise “a liberal, tolerant brand of Islam,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said. “We think this might be the family we will be sponsoring.

“Our focus is on family re-unification and while we are not looking at specific ethnic and religious groups, some ethnic, religious groups are more endangered,” he said.

So far the synagogue has raised close to $27,000.

“I think in general there was a sense there was a mitzvah we had to do. For the Jewish community in particular, this is a bigger ask. We have a lot of concerns about Jewish-Muslim relations and Syrians in their relations to Israel, and we are concerned as a community over security issues.”

Some members of the congregation wanted to focus the synagogue’s efforts on Yazidis and Christians, he said.

In bringing a Syrian family to Canada, the aim is not to benefit the Jewish community, but to do so because “it is the right thing to do at this time.”