British Jews lay groundwork for influx of Syrian refugees
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British Jews lay groundwork for influx of Syrian refugees

Unfazed by government policy, Reform, Liberal and Masorti Judaism streams jointly push for private sponsorship registry

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on September 10, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris, File)
Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on September 10, 2015. (AP/Petros Giannakouris, File)

British Jewry is vowing to not stand idly by as restrictive British asylum policy prevents all but a tiny trickle of today’s refugees to legally reach the shores of the United Kingdom.

Earlier this month, during Hanukkah, three of Britain’s Jewish religious movements released a video announcing the launch of a campaign to reinstate private sponsorship for refugees, a mechanism that disappeared after WWII.

Like the private sponsorship of refugees currently underway by Canadian Jews, the British scheme would involve synagogues, community organizations and individuals taking responsibility for resettling Syrian families fleeing the four-year-old civil war in their country.

“One of the things that has united the Jewish communities here is the refugee crisis. Religious and lay leaders are speaking out. Nothing has been as deeply resonant for us,” said Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, a senior British Reform rabbi.

‘One of the things that has united the Jewish communities here is the refugee crisis’

However, unlike in Canada, private sponsorship not a legal option in the UK. British Jews are limited to registering as potential sponsors and pledging funding in anticipation of a policy shift.

As of last week, the Reform, Liberal and Masorti Judaism movements (but not the Orthodox United Synagogue) had signed up for a private sponsorship registry established by Citizens UK, Britain’s largest community organizer charity. The three movements, which have jointly pledged £15,000 thus far for refugee resettlement, join the Methodists, the Bishop of Barking, the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Bob Geldof and others on the registry.

To date, the only way in which Syrian refugees can enter the UK legally is through the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, a program that prioritizes women and children at risk, people in severe need of medical care and survivors of torture and violence. Under this initiative, the UNHCR must assess each refugee before recommending them to the British Home Office, which in turn must conduct visa checks and find a place to resettle them them within a local authority.

Only around 200 of the more than four million displaced Syrians have entered the UK in this way to date, although in September, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government announced that the UK would commit to absorbing 20,000 Syrian refugees over the coming five years. By comparison, Canada has committed to resettling 25,000 refugees by the end of February 2016, with 10,000 arriving by the end of this month.

Citizens UK organizer for British Jewish communities Charlotte Fischer (courtesy)
Citizens UK organizer for British Jewish communities Charlotte Fischer (courtesy)

“We are doing shamefully compared to Canada,” said Charlotte Fischer, Citizens UK organizer for the British Jewish community.

“We are pushing for the government to raise the number from 20,000 to 50,000,” she added.

In the meantime, Fischer and her Citizens UK colleagues have been working to lay the groundwork for the successful resettlement of the refugees when they arrive. For the past two years, they have actively encouraged local authorities to accept refugees and set up 600 refugee welcome committees across the country.

According to Fischer, the national government has made funds available for resettlement. Now it is a matter for local councils to agree to welcome and support their integration.

“The Barnet local council is on board,” said Fischer, referring to the London-area community with the largest Jewish population in the country.

Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the UK Rabbi Danny Rich (second from right) in 'Season of Sanctuary' sukkah in Redbridge, October 2014. (Citizens UK)
Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the UK Rabbi Danny Rich (second from right) in ‘Season of Sanctuary’ sukkah in Redbridge, October 2014. (Citizens UK)

In parallel with her work in lining up potential private sponsors, Janner-Klausner has made visits to the makeshift migrant camp in Calais, on the French coast on the other side of the English Channel. She has gone to support the work of the organizations working with the 5,000 mainly Syrian refugees there, and to just sit and listen to the people tell her their traumatic stories.

Citizens UK has also sent over teams to the Calais camp to help determine whether there are any people there who have family relations in the UK, which could possibly qualify them for fast tracking their application for asylum.

Matt Plen, chief executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK (Peter Strauss)
Matt Plen, chief executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK (Peter Strauss)

Young people from the Masorti youth movement Marom spent three days this past Sukkot holiday at the Calais refugee camp building shelters and distributing supplies.

“Being there over Sukkot, the symbolism was not lost on me. But I kept thinking: ‘Why are there not more people here helping?'” Harry Kelly, 19, told the Jewish Chronicle.

According to Janner-Klausner, there was an upswell in sympathy for the Syrian refugees following the publication in early September of photos of the drowned body of little Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. However, the pendulum swung the other way after the coordinated Isalmist terror attacks on Paris on November 13.

“Our communities’ identifying with refugees is a longstanding feature and predates the Syria crisis,” said Matt Plen, chief executive for Masorti Judaism in the UK.

He said that the security situation presents reason for British Jews to be concerned, but that it is not preventing them from going about their usual routines, including interfaith dialogue and activities with local Muslims.

“We live in a multicultural society and we want to have good relations with our Muslim neighbors. We often face the same issues they do. Our interfaith work is more important than ever, and it’s another reason to get involved in trying to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis,” said Plen.

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