As the first planeloads of an expected 25,000 Syrian refugees landed in Montreal and Toronto earlier this month, Jewish Canadians were there to welcome them.
With roughly one-third of the country’s larger Jewish congregations sponsoring one or more Syrian refugee families, Jewish Canadians are clearly active in bringing Syrian refugees from camps in Jordan and Lebanon into Canada. Several additional Jewish community organizations — and even a Jewish school — have also submitted private sponsorship applications to the government.
While Canada’s rabbis busily work with congregants to prepare for the arrival of “their” Syrian families, counterparts south of the border in the US describe a mounting frustration as anti-Muslim rhetoric heats up and Congress and state governors move to block the entrance of Syrian refugees.
As it becomes increasingly unclear if a White House proposal to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the US in 2016 will come to fruition, US congregations wonder how they, like the Canadian Jews, may act on the Torah injunction to welcome and care for the stranger.
Only 2,234 refugees from among the more than four million people displaced by the Syrian civil war have been admitted to the US since 2011, according to figures published in late November by the State Department. Three-quarters of them were accepted in the past year.
More than 1,250 American rabbis signed a December 2 letter delivered by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to all members of Congress supporting refugee resettlement and opposing measures to halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees. The rabbis recalled the plight of European Jews fleeing the Nazis who were denied visas and turned away from US borders and reminded their elected officials that in a world plagued by terror, the Syrian refugees themselves are victims of terror.
“In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake,” the letter urged.
North of the border
The Canadian government plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016, with 10,000 arriving before the end of this year. The resettlement plan could double to 50,000 by the end of next year, according to Canada’s minister of immigration and citizenship John McCallum.
Forty percent of the new arrivals will arrive as privately sponsored refugees (PSRs), which means that a religious congregation, community organization or group of private citizens has committed and raised sufficient funds to provide them with care, lodging settlement assistance and support for at least one year.
The security fears and anti-Muslim sentiment that have dominated public discourse in the US have not generally come into play in Canada, including among Canadian Jews.
According to Toronto’s Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) executive director Janis Roth, potential Jewish sponsors ask about security and health check protocols, but are for the most part satisfied when they learn that the checks are robust and carried out by Canadian authorities prior to the refugees’ arrival in Canada.
“None of the groups applying to be sponsors through us withdrew after Paris. In fact, more signed on,” said Roth, referring to the November 13 coordinated attacks on the French capital by Islamist terrorists that killed 130.
As a pre-approved Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), JIAS acts on behalf of some 35 Jewish groups seeking to privately sponsor Syrian refugee families. JIAS is the only SAH affiliated with the Jewish community, and primarily works with Jewish groups in Toronto and Ottawa. Roth noted that it is mostly groups of synagogue members that are submitting sponsorship applications, rather than official congregations.
However, some Jewish groups and congregations opt to work with another SAH. For example, Temple Sholom, a large Reform congregation in Vancouver, has submitted its sponsorship application though the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia.
“We have raised almost $80,000 to sponsor two families. Our paperwork is in. We are just waiting impatiently. Winter is here and these families are in peril,” said Temple Sholom senior rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
South of the border
While Canadian rabbis are taking practical steps to help refugee families, American rabbis, because of limitations imposed by American policy, are focusing their efforts on advocacy and education.
Orthodox activist rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz joined a coalition of faith leaders in Arizona calling for a change to US refugee policy. Not only has he spoken at rallies and lobbied lawmakers, but he also invited a newly arrived Syrian refugee family into his home for Thanksgiving.
“Jews can be part of the solution to this problem. The Jewish community should play a leadership role in this,” he asserted.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, lead of the innovative IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles, is outspoken in her support for Syrian refugees and fighting discrimination against Muslims. On December 17 she spoke at a large, public interfaith gathering in front of LA’s city hall.
“I stand here before you today as an American and as a Jew, because for us — for all of us — this is personal. In 1939, when my people were fleeing Europe and trying to come to the United States, 60% of the people in this country said they didn’t want even the Jewish children to come across our borders,” she said.
“When 36 times in our Torah, the Hebrew Bible, we are told to love the stranger, to treat the stranger with dignity, it’s because we ourselves were strangers… There are dark clouds that are rolling over the beginning of this 21st century. The collective human heart is aching today in grief, and in pain and in fear. But fear makes for very bad politics. Fear fans the flames of hatred, which leads to more violence, which leads to more fear,” she continued.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove has also used his prominent pulpit as senior rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York to push for letting in more Syrian refugees. His November 21 sermon can be understood as a call to action.
“What I don’t question, what I feel secure in saying and sharing with you today is what the stance of American Jewry must be regarding the Syrian refugees…The Jewish community must be on the side of the refugees because it is our moral, legal, and historical mitzvah to fulfill,” the Conservative rabbi said.
“Jews should be a forceful voice for the refugees because to do so is a sanctification of God’s name, to do so shames those enemies of Israel who sit idly by as their Arab brethren suffer, and because to do so might just prompt the world to work together to address the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Perhaps most simply, we should do so because we should always strive to be on the right side of history,” Cosgrove said.
“Are there reasons not to accept refugees? Undoubtedly there are. But as Jews, as American Jews, there is nothing wrong, in fact there is everything right with taking a principled stand – popular or not – and then taking action together as a community,” he said.
Park Avenue Synagogue’s director of congregational education, Rabbi Charles Savenor, takes a hands-on approach with congregants of all ages. He is proud that a group of 80 of the Conservative congregation’s members and staff on a trip to Germany this fall were the first North American synagogue group to volunteer there at a shelter for Syrian refugees. Most of the congregants also brought clothes for the refugees from New York.
Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, Hillel executive director at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, sees his role as creating space for the university’s politically aware students to discuss the refugee crisis. He looks forward to following the students’ lead on the issue when the campus fills up again after winter break.
Kaiser-Blueth believes it is not Hillel’s place to prescribe what students should do, but rather to facilitate discussions and help students keep their eyes on what is possible to do — despite whatever obstacles US refugee policy may present.
“Religious leaders have the opportunity to shape the conversation,” he said about what rabbis and others can do on the national level.
In his medium-size Conservative synagogue, Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst, New Jersey, Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun also puts a Jewish lens on contemporary issues for his congregants.
Most of his interactions with congregants on the refugee crisis take place in classes and conversations at the synagogue.
“Security checks don’t preclude welcoming people fleeing war and persecution. It’s a scary world, but we can’t capitulate to fear and throw our Jewish values to the wind,” Schonbrun said about his message to congregants.
Looking to the past, and partners
Rabbi Yael Splasky is senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto’s oldest and Canada’s largest Reform congregation, which is sponsoring three Syrian refugee families. Her temple has a long history of not only helping settle waves of Jewish immigration to Toronto, but also the Vietnamese boat people who began arriving in Canada as refugees in 1979.
“We recently held an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The Toronto Vietnamese community wanted to thank Holy Blossom and the Jewish community for bringing so many families here. Now they are thriving and contributing citizens of Canada,” Splansky said.
Like other synagogues, Holy Blossom is reaching out to partner with other congregations and organizations to support the sponsorship effort. The temple’s cantor Benjamin Maissner participated in an interfaith concert whose proceeds all went to refugee relief, and the low-income housing complex the temple built in honor of one of its former rabbis has offered to accommodate the new arrivals.
“Our congregation has growing relationships with Muslim Torontonians through the Intercultural Dialogue Institute. I believe there will be good ways for collaborative efforts there, as well,” Splansky added.
“I hear of the shame and frustration felt by American Jewry over the refugee issue. They feel helpless. I moved to Canada 18 years ago. The US is a more fearful place today. I am still proud of my American citizenship, but I find myself more and more aligned with Canada, a kinder place to make a home,” she said.
Like Rabbi Splansky in Toronto, Vancouver Rabbi Moskovitz is also from the US, and he too is saddened by US refugee policy, calling it “the worst of xenophobia.”
On the other hand, American-born Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, senior rabbi at Shaarei Shomayim, a Modern Orthodox congregation of 700 families in Toronto, is not as quick to criticize the US, which he pointed out is contributing more than Canada to the military fight against Islamic State. (New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is withdrawing Canada’s CF-18s from combat against IS.)
Fifty of his synagogue’s members have joined together to sponsor an Armenian Christian family with two young children who fled Syria for Lebanon. The sponsorship application is only now being completed, so the rabbi tempers congregants’ expectations as to how quickly the family will arrive in Canada.
While many rabbis speak of parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, Strauchler warned against drawing a complete equivalency between the two situations.
“In the past, it was racism that kept countries from letting in the Jews. Now there are real security issues. You can’t paint this in black and white moral terms,” he said.
Should private sponsorship be prioritized?
Vancouver-based rabbi Moskovitz vocally advocates for the Canadian government to make PSRs a priority ahead of government-assisted refugees (GARs). He has lobbied his local member of parliament, written to the prime minster, and also spoken to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada, on the matter.
He believes that private sponsorships are preferable because they save taxpayer money and usually involve family reunification, thus ensuring a better outcome not only for the refugees, but also for Canadian society.
“The public route is riskier. If government agencies can’t properly take care of these people’s integration into Canadian society, they can fall through the cracks. There is a risk of their becoming isolated and even radicalized,” Moskovitz warned.
“There’s a sense of urgency right now. The government should grab this lightning in a bottle,” he added. Currently, faith-based volunteers line up in churches, mosques and synagogues to take on the work entailed in private sponsorships.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citzenship Canada refused to comment about the relative advantages of the privately sponsored refugee program, saying only that “the majority of the arrivals in 2015 are expected to be privately sponsored refugees.”
“Don’t get me wrong. We are proud of our Canadian government’s efforts, but we can do this more efficiently and at less cost. In the end that will save more lives faster,” insisted Moskovitz.
After seeing his US clergy friends’ efforts going nowhere, Moskovitz is happy he recently landed up north of the 49th parallel.
“I am glad that in Canada I can live the words of the Torah [to welcome strangers], because I couldn’t fulfil this mitzvah if I were still living in the US,” he said.