With only 143 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School in Toronto may be small, but its families have big hearts. Among the 35 Canadian Jewish groups currently in the process of sponsoring Syrian refugee families, Paul Penna DJDS is the only school.
The first Syrian refugees among the 25,000 Canada has pledged to resettle by February of next year arrived by plane in Toronto and Montreal this weekend. Jewish Canadians, mainly groups of synagogue members, began looking into sponsoring refugee families as early as last summer, according to Janis Roth, executive director of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) in Toronto, the only organization in the country’s Jewish community that is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). Consequently, all Jewish groups wishing to privately sponsor refugees are working to do so through JIAS.
It was toward the end of the last summer that a group of Paul Penna DJDS parents approached the school’s administration and board with the idea of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.
“It has been Angus Grant, a parent of a fourth grader and a student who graduated last year, who has spearheaded this effort. He is a refugee lawyer and his family took in a Vietnamese refugee family when he was growing up,” said Dr. Dan Goldberg, the head of school.
According to Goldberg, the school’s board endorsed the initiative without delay — no surprise to him or anyone who knows the school, which is the only Jewish day school located in Toronto’s urban core, enrolling a more diverse student and family population than the city’s other Jewish schools.
“A primary focus of our school is social justice. We emphasize community and diversity, and a sense of responsibility toward the world. We want our graduates to remember the school as a place where they were valued as human beings, and where they learned to value human life anywhere,” he said.
At this point, all the school knows is that it will be sponsoring a Syrian refugee family of four. It has no idea when exactly the family will be arriving in Toronto.
It did not take long for the students and their families to meet their goal of raising $36,000 for the sponsorship. The families contributed around $35,000, and the student council led a drive that brought in the remainder.
“They ran a campaign for the kids to bring in loose change. One day they were supposed to bring in loonies, another it was toonies, and so on. They managed to raise $1,000 that way,” said Goldberg, using the colloquial terms for Canada’s $1 and $2 coins.
The impending arrival of the refugee family is at the forefront of the children’s minds. It’s a topic of informal conversation in the classrooms, as well as part of the current school year’s curriculum.
As soon as the decision was made to go ahead with the sponsorship effort, Jewish life coordinator Janice Feldman and teacher Kate Sable put together a curricular framework for the faculty to deal with the subject in each grade and at various developmental levels.
“The overarching themes are tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger, but we are also touching on the subjects such as human rights, overcoming challenges, and the weekly Torah portion,” Goldberg explained.
The school is approaching the topic in a positive manner, by making the children aware of the plight of the Syrian refugees without traumatizing them. Current events are discussed “in broad brushstrokes,” and only with students in the older grades, according to the head of school.
All the children have been busy making cards to welcome the refugees. Some of them have adorned them with the maps and flags of Canada and Syria. Others have drawn snowmen to illustrate the cold weather the Syrians will encounter upon their arrival this winter.
A boy in fifth grade wrote, “Welcome to Canada!!! We are so very happy to have you here. You are going to love it here!!!”
“I’m sorry that you had to move away from your home but I hope you enjoy your new home in Canada. I and all the Canadians are happy to have you here,” expressed a girl in the same class.
Goldberg was particularly touched to see that some of kids took the time to look up Arabic phrases online, and to copy them carefully onto their cards.
“That showed their respect for these people,” he said.