Vancouver Jews rally to help Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee and her child rest in Kos, Greece SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO
A Syrian refugee and her child rest in Kos, Greece SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO

Vancouver’s Jewish community has rallied to the cause of the Syrian refugees. Fundraising efforts are well underway to bring refugee families to British Columbia in early 2016.

The most public face of the Jewish fundraising efforts has been Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, the city’s largest synagogue with 720 member households. He was galvanized into action by the image of Alan Kurdi’s drowned body on the beach, and delivered a powerful sermon during Yom Kippur.

Being human the “only similarity” that we need

“We would all save the child, because children are all innocent. But to love the stranger you have to take the parents too, you have to love the Syrians who were taught to fear and hate Israel, to fear and hate… Jews. In these [refugee] numbers the world is dealing with, too many innocents will die while we carefully screen for the next Bin Laden. I want to ask you to save a life, the life of a stranger – because we were once strangers in the land, because we are human beings and that is the only similarity that we really need.”

Within a few days of that sermon, the congregation had raised $40,000, enough to sponsor one Syrian refugee family’s resettlement in British Columbia. It’s now fundraising for another $40,000 to sponsor a second family and is collaborating with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV), the Anglican Archdiocese and Mosaic, an immigrant service organization in Vancouver.

Rabbi Moskovitz
Rabbi Moskovitz

Rabbi Moskovitz’s efforts attracted national press coverage that generated more donations and letters of support from around the world, many from the Muslim community. Support from his congregants for the refugee initiative has been “mostly unanimous,” he said.

“A handful of congregants have expressed concern that we’re importing people who might hate us, and I met with them. They want us to be intentional in how we do this, but everyone wanted to help.”

Rabbi Moskovitz said the congregation had opted to be “agnostic” in terms of the religious identities of the families it has chosen to sponsor. Both are Kurdish families: one with two children ages five and three whose parents are a medical doctor and a lab technician, and the other a newly wedded couple, ages 18 and 20.

READ: Congregations prepare to welcome Syrian refugees

“We’re completely responsible for them financially for the first year – for meeting them at the airport, arranging housing, food and clothing,” he said. Mosaic will take care of language training, job training and cultural integration. Both sponsorships involve family reunification and both families already have family in Vancouver.

“There’s a rabbinic imperative from our tradition to try to unify a family, so we felt a Jewish obligation to work towards that,” he said.

As chair of the Canadian Council of Reform Rabbis, Moskovitz added that every sizable Reform congregation in Canada – approximately 20 – is sponsoring refugee families.

“We’ve also just created a partnership between Reform congregations in Canada and the U.S. It will give the 950 American Reform congregations an opportunity to co-sponsor refugee families with us and offer material support, care packages and organizational assistance.”

Refugees are “people just like us”

Congregation Or Shalom, Vancouver’s Reconstructionist synagogue, also created a Syrian refugee initiative just before Rosh Hashanah, with the goal of sponsoring three refugee families. To date it has raised $80,000 and has been holding events to raise an additional $40,000. “We trust that the government has a good screening process,” said Natalie Grunberg, who is helping spearhead the initiative.

“We understand that these refugees are people just like us who need to find a safe place. As Jews, that really resonates with us, so we’ve not had too many concerns from members of our community and any concern people have is usually out of ignorance.”

In October, the JFGV sent a $10,000 donation from its emergency fund to the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to support the welfare needs of Syrian women and children refugees, and to provide psychological support to front-line staff. Federation has opted to work as an intermediary with the Anglican diocese, Mosaic and Jewish community partners including synagogues, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Jewish Family Service Agency.

At Mosaic, Mustafa Ahmad, a Kurdish settlement worker who left Syria for Canada in 1990, is helping the Jewish community select the families for sponsorship.

“In screening potential families, I’m trying to make sure they’re not anti-religion and specifically not anti-Semitic,” he said. His process involves interviewing Vancouver-based relatives of those families to ensure they are aware that the sponsorship is by the Jewish community. “If they’re from the Kurdish community, I’m from the same area and I know the values, traditions and customs over there,” he added.

Congregation Schara Tzedeck in Vancouver has opted to aid the refugee crisis by raising money for the JDC to help refugees on the ground. “We’re also raising money for the Rambam Hospital in Israel which provides medical treatment to victims of war, through Canadian Friends of Rambam Hospital,” Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt said.

At Richmond, B.C.’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Rabbi Howard Siegel said his board was still discussing how they would help the Syrian refugees, but said there was strong interest from many members in providing assistance.

READ: An eight-point plan to help Syrian refugees

“We want to see what’s going to happen here before committing our resources, before determining where we can get the most bang for our buck. The elephant in the room here is what is going to be the role of the Muslim community in B.C.? How involved will they be in this refugee effort?”

According to Daud Ismail, president of the B.C. Muslim Association, the Muslim community, which numbers between 50,000 and 80,000, is actively gathering support. The BCMA has applied to be a Sponsorship Agreement Holder, documentation that will allow it to sponsor families. In the last four to six weeks the community has raised $50,000 and hopes to raise another $300,000 in December to sponsor up to five refugee families. It has also set aside warehouse space for storage of donated furniture and household items.

“There are up to 25 Muslim organizations working with us and they’re collecting money independently, too,” Ismail said. “We don’t care if we sponsor Muslim or Christian refugees – we’re going to help as many refugees as possible.”