Montreal Jews and Muslims unite to help Syrian refugees

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, left, and Shaheen Ashraf find inspiration in Judaism and Islam in their work for refugees. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, left, and Shaheen Ashraf find inspiration in Judaism and Islam in their work for refugees JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

Jews and Muslims can find common cause in assisting Syrian refugees, and in doing so, appreciate the similarity of their religious values.

That was the message conveyed at a meeting of members of the two communities addressed by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, and Shaheen Ashraf, secretary of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Montreal chapter.

About 50 people attended the event at the Atwater Library on Dec. 15, convened by the new Jewish-Muslim Forum of Montreal.

It was the first open event of the group, which is an initiative of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), in partnership with CRARR (Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations), a local non-profit organization that has been combating discrimination for more than 30 years.


Since 2008, FFEU has fostered Muslim-Jewish dialogue around the world, including in Toronto, organizing “twinning” events annually in November and December. This year, such events took place in more than 30 cities, said Walter Ruby, director of the program.

The temple was the first Montreal Jewish group to commit to sponsoring refugees. It announced in September that it would sponsor at least one family and undertake to raise a minimum of $30,000.

Rabbi Grushcow said the congregation is now hoping to sponsor three families. All the paperwork has been done for the first family and most of it for the second, she said. The temple is now trying to identify a third family to sponsor. As is the norm, the temple does not know when the families will arrive, and temple members may be given as little as 24 hours notice.

The response from the 900-member Reform congregation was beyond expectations. Officially launched on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – a Monday – the project raised $25,000 by that Friday and more than $40,000 by Yom Kippur, Rabbi Grushcow said. At the end of the month, the total was close to $70,000.

Moreover, temple members are eager to lend their expertise, including immigration lawyers David Berger and David Cohen, or volunteer in other ways during the year after the refugees arrive, a process that’s part of the sponsorship commitment.

Sponsors must identify specific people they want to assist. Rabbi Grushcow said the temple’s refugees were found through relatives living in Montreal. For their security, she did not want to publicize details about them, but it can be made known that they are coming from refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. One family has five children. There is a pharmacist and a French teacher among the parents. And they are Muslim.

An opportunity to build relationships with Muslims

Rabbi Grushcow said the congregation never made religion a consideration, but the attitude outside has not been so open.

“People quietly ask, ‘Are they Christian or Muslim? Christians are a minority and are being persecuted, and are you sure Muslims want to be sponsored by a synagogue?’”

Others have been less polite, even Islamophobic, she has found. “They hate us, they may be dangerous – are you sure you want to do this?” she quoted some as saying.

“My response is that the only relevant question is that we are people of faith, and the Torah calls upon us to welcome the stranger,” Rabbi Grushcow said, and this crisis speaks to our common humanity.

She added that this is an opportunity to build relationships with Muslims and get beyond stereotypes.

Ashraf said Islam also teaches that its adherents must help the stranger, especially those who are the victims of oppression.

“This welcoming gesture will give Canada a good name again in the world, especially the Middle East, where it is sorely needed,” she said, adding that Canada has shown “political courage and vision at a time when xenophobia in Europe and the United States is growing.”

Muslims and Jews, as “children of Abraham,” should “be in step with each other.” Ashraf said she is already pitching in with some Jewish individuals who are sponsors.

This event served as a chance for those involved with refugee relief to get to know each other.

In practical terms, Rabbi Grushcow said Jews and Muslims can begin by sharing their expertise, for example in legal matters, and co-ordinating their efforts.

The other participants included Bilal Hamideh, a board member of the Canadian Muslim Forum and Canadian Alliance for Syrian Aid steering committee member; and Karen Mock of Toronto, representing the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, which works with the FFEU.

An unscheduled intervenor who was warmly welcomed was Muhamad Al Bukaai, who identified himself as a Syrian refugee who arrived three months earlier. He thanked everyone for what they are doing to help other refugees.

Ruby also congratulated Canadians generally for their “human decency” in contrast to the “anti-Muslim demagogy” in the United States.

READ: Victoria shul raises funds to sponsor Syrian family

“That you are welcoming 25,000 refugees is mind-boggling, when my country can’t even get it together to take 10,000,” he said.

Elsewhere in the Jewish community, the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet is trying to raise $30,000 to qualify as a refugee sponsor and has begun the process of selecting individuals or a family, as required by the federal government.

The modern Orthodox Adath Israel Congregation has been collecting clothing and personal care products to donate to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Rabbi Michael Whitman said an individual he can vouch for will take the goods directly to Jordan for distribution.