Herzig: Remembering our roots on International Refugee Shabbat

(Wikimedia Commons photo)

I recently found a tin box that was placed on the uppermost shelf of my father’s closet. As we together sifted through the photographs, identity papers and important documents inside, I followed his journey from Poland to Germany, France and, ultimately, Canada.

For many, an iconic photo of the Holocaust is a 1943 black-and-white picture of a young boy raising his hands in the Warsaw Ghetto as an SS soldier points a submachine gun at the child. Unfortunately, as social media did not exist in 1943, this photo serves as a historical artifact rather than as a call to action.

Global reaction was vastly different when a photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi garnered world attention in 2015. The photo depicts a child’s body washed ashore. Alan, his mother, father and five-year-old brother boarded an inflatable boat with the intent of leaving Turkey and making it to the shores of Europe for safety. The boat ride was only a three-mile trip – a relatively short distance to rebuild their lives. Tragically, the boat capsized and Alan, his brother and his mother drowned.

While the Syrian civil war was already in its fourth year, it was Alan’s photo and story that drew attention to the Syrian crisis in a way that the news reports of millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths had been unable to do. Like many others, the Jewish community saw Alan’s loss of life as a call to action to help.

Just like many Canadian Jews failed in their attempts to bring their families to Canada during the Holocaust, so did the Kurdi family’s Canadian relatives fail in their attempts to obtain entry for Alan’s family.

In 2015, the Jewish community mobilized and supported work by JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) Toronto to help refugees. As JIAS is the only Canadian Jewish social service agency with the status of a Sponsorship Agreement Holder, we were able to resettle refugees from abroad through private sponsorship and engage community members that wanted to make a difference.

Our volunteers’ and donors’ commitment to help the stranger is steeped in our Jewish values. Our prayers and commandments remind us that we were slaves and strangers in a strange land. This shapes us, and shapes how we treat others.

As Jews, we are commanded 36 times in the Torah to welcome the stranger, such as this instance in Chapter 19 of Leviticus: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”

JIAS has a 98-year history of welcoming and supporting Jewish immigrants and refugees. As the world refugee crisis is at an all-time high – with one person forcibly displaced almost every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution – this commandment is more important than ever before.

Unfortunately, the impact of Alan’s photo has waned. There are close to a million displaced Syrians who are at risk of freezing to death during the largest exodus of the Syrian war. Do we need another photograph or is there something we can do now?

We should be proud that Canada is a world leader in refugee resettlement. We should gather and share knowledge to debunk myths, promote tolerance and help build a stronger and more inclusive Canada.

We should commit to having at least one conversation with someone who has expressed doubt about welcoming refugees to Canada or has even made disparaging remarks about immigrants and refugees.

We should be conscious of the fact that more than 70 million people around the world today have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

On the weekend of March 20, you can participate in International Refugee Shabbat. It can be as simple as a discussion around a Shabbat table with family and friends.

And we should find a way to help another family create a tin box with pictures and documents that chronicle their successful journey to Canada.

For more information on how you or your synagogue can participate in
International Refugee Shabbat, go to jiastoronto.org/events.