Refugee work heralds new era of shul-driven social action

Syrian and Iraqi immigrants getting off a boat from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Syrian and Iraqi immigrants getting off a boat from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

In an age of declining membership and increasing secularization, Canadian synagogues are suddenly reasserting their moral leadership and dynamism. The reason for this unexpected change? Caring for non-Jews.

Of course, caring for non-Jews is nothing new. From Ve’ahavta’s role serving the homeless on Toronto’s streets to IsraAID’s emergency relief efforts in the most pressing humanitarian crises, there are countless examples of our community executing that most Jewish of imperatives, tikkun olam.

But while Jews routinely come together to act on moral issues through community organizations and charities, they act less often through their shuls. And yet, by one measure, one-third of the larger Canadian Jewish congregations are privately sponsoring Syrian refugees. What explains this sudden explosion of shul-driven social action?

The answer lies, in part, in the mechanics of sponsoring Syrian refugees. The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship permits groups as small as five people to sponsor refugees privately. With potential sponsors coming together pell-mell across Canada, shuls are well placed to be the forums where community activists find each other. 

READ: Vancouver Jews rally to help Syrian refugees

But the answer is much deeper than that. Welcoming refugees to Canada has become a mass exercise in nation-building, engaging Canadians from coast to coast to coast. There is a sense that this is a defining moment for Canada, one that will shape our national culture for years to come. And Canada’s Jewish community, which remembers the wartime “none is too many” period all too well, is as captivated by this rallying cry as anyone. We see our engagement in this national project as a direct expression of our core Jewish values.

In other words, many Jews today yearn for a spiritual outlet for their social values. A new generation is not content with davening in a minyan or writing a cheque for tzedakah. They are hungry to take action on the central moral struggles of our day, and they want to do so Jewishly. Shuls are the logical Jewish institution to help them organize. 

In fact, because Jewish refugee sponsorship is inherently a spiritual and grassroots-led initiative, larger Jewish organizations, which overwhelmingly are neither spiritually focused nor grassroots oriented, have been generally uninvolved in this massive, national project. Outside of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, a federation-funded agency that has been quietly undertaking this yeoman’s work for nearly a century, the heavy lifting is being done by local groups gathering in social halls and rabbis’ studies. Rabbis themselves have also lent their voices and moral authority to this issue, adding a note of spiritual leadership and reminding us all that our moral actions today are inherently rooted in our rich and ancient religious tradition. 


These organic, shul-led refugee sponsorships are having ripple effects. While some congregations already host longstanding soup kitchens or lead riverbank cleanups, others are stepping up. Most famously in recent memory, when a suspicious fire damaged the only mosque in Peterborough last fall, the city’s Beth Israel Synagogue immediately took in their Muslim neighbours, offering a welcome and safe place to pray and to be at home as a community. At one and the same time, the Peterborough congregation expressed the very best of Canadian and Jewish values.

The critical issues we face aren’t going away: reconciling with our indigenous neighbours, eliminating child poverty and fighting for human rights are just some of the moral challenges calling us out for Jewish-led social action. Beth Israel’s action-oriented spiritual responses to a pressing moral challenge can help re-situate our shuls in the centre of our communities.

And with our synagogues and our rabbis at the forefront of these struggles, they may just find themselves leading our community to greater things. 

Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto and serves on a variety of Jewish
communal boards.