‘The world was infinitely better thanks to you’: Refugee advocate Janis Roth dies of cancer

Janis Roth (Kim Smiley photo)

Janis Roth, who combined compassion and toughness to steer Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) of Toronto through some tumultuous years, died at her home in Thornhill, Ont., on April 29, after a brief bout of cancer. She was 59.

A social worker by training, Roth served as the executive director of JIAS Toronto from 2003 until January, overseeing welcome, settlement and integration services for the roughly 500 Jewish families – more than 2,200 individuals – who arrived in the Toronto area annually from Russia, Ukraine, Latin America, Turkey, India, Israel, South Africa and elsewhere.

“The client base reflected the trauma of the world,” said JIAS Toronto chair Nanette Rosen. “We have families now from France, Venezuela and Mexico. Each country brought its own richness and ideas.”

In overseeing that complex bureaucracy, Roth was “empathetic and sincere. She treated JIAS clients with respect, believing in their ability and all their skills and new ideas they brought to enrich the Jewish community,” Rosen said.


“Her devotion to her work, her compassion and her commitment to helping newcomers motivated us all to strive to do our best,” JIAS Toronto said in a statement. “She was an inspiration and a guiding force in this community, with a deep passion for serving those most in need.

“Janis made an indelible mark on our community and on this world, and her legacy will live on.”

Roth’s time at JIAS coincided with several refugee-producing crises around the world, including, most recently, the Syrian civil war. Forty Syrian families, comprised of 140 individuals, were approved for private sponsorship by the agency.

According to JIAS Toronto’s 2016-17 annual report, “all of our eligible sponsored families from the 2015 government’s Syrian refugee crisis initiative have arrived. In year one of their new life in Canada, the children are doing well, even thriving, and the parents are navigating cultural differences, adjusting to the language and involved in the search for work.”

She treated JIAS clients with respect.
– Nanette Rosen

JIAS then embarked on working with the federal government to assist Yazidi refugees, “some of whom have already arrived and require specialized and intensive settlement,” the report added.

Early last year, the agency received numerous calls from groups in the United States that were hoping to sponsor refugees, but whose plans were scotched after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a refugee ban.

“We’ve been getting calls from Jewish groups in the United States, wondering if they were able to refer groups here,” Roth told The CJN at the time. “People are reacting with great upset.”

Born in Montreal, Roth earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from McGill University. She worked at Montreal’s Jewish Family Services and the Miriam Home, a facility for people with intellectual disabilities, where she pioneered independent-living initiatives.

Following a move to Toronto, she worked at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, before joining JIAS.

Her devotion to her work, her compassion and her commitment to helping newcomers motivated us all to strive to do our best.
– JIAS Toronto

It was on Roth’s watch that JIAS Toronto became a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) – an organization that has a legally binding agreement with the federal government to sponsor refugees as permanent residents. There are 100 SAHs across Canada, but JIAS Toronto is the only Jewish one.

She also played a key role in the formation of the community-wide Jewish Poverty Action Group, which offered support for the working poor.

“She was a really sharp-minded, critical thinker,” remarked Roth’s sister, Tina. “A very dear friend.”

Roth is survived by her husband of 37 years, Kenny Held, daughters Rebecca and Alyssa and siblings Blair, Cynthia and Tina.

Two weeks before she died, Roth received a letter of gratitude from a Syrian refugee who came to Canada through JIAS sponsorship. “Countless families and their children and children’s children owe their safety and very lives to your efforts,” it read. “A part of the world was infinitely better thanks to you.”