Moved by moral imperative, Canadian synagogues sponsor Syrian refugees
'We shouldn't blame a refugee crisis for terrorism, when really we should be blaming terrorism for a refugee crisis'

Moved by moral imperative, Canadian synagogues sponsor Syrian refugees

Peterborough, Ontario Jewish congregation helps local mosque hit by arson attack

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

Syrian refugees queue for food in northwestern Turkish province of Edirne, as they headed to the Greek border, September 17, 2015. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)
Syrian refugees queue for food in northwestern Turkish province of Edirne, as they headed to the Greek border, September 17, 2015. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Vancouver, British Columbia’s Temple Sholom and Peterborough, Ontario’s Beth Israel Synagogue couldn’t be more different. One is the largest Jewish congregation in one of Canada’s largest cities, while the other has a membership of only 35 families, employs no professional clergy, and attracts at most 100 worshipers for High Holiday services.

Yet, these two disparate synagogues at opposite ends of the country are representative of the efforts being made by Jewish congregations across Canada to help Arabs affected by war far away in the Middle East and Muslims targeted by hate crimes close by.

Unlike the United States, which has severely restricted the entrance of Syrian civil war refugees (just 1,854 have been absorbed since 2012), Canada has already resettled 23,000 Iraqi refugees and has announced a plan to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this year, after having absorbed several thousand already. Jewish congregations and community organizations are actively — alone or in concert with other Canadian groups — sponsoring Syrian refugee families.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, Vancouver. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, Vancouver (Courtesy)

Temple Sholom’s senior rabbi Dan Moskovitz has been on the vanguard of this effort, both within his own congregation and as chair of a national association of Reform Rabbis. In early September, Moskovitz brought the idea of sponsorship to his Temple’s board, which unanimously accepted it. Shortly thereafter on the High Holidays, the rabbi delivered an impassioned sermon referencing everything from Holocaust history to Rosh Hashanah liturgy to Abraham Lincoln. A single follow-up email that went out to congregants raised the $40,000 required for sponsoring one refugee family in just a few days.

While support for the sponsorship was overwhelmingly positive among Temple Sholom’s 720 member households, Moskovitz told The Times of Israel that up to five percent of the congregation expressed concern or opposition to the plan.

“I met with all of these members, either individually or in groups. They were mainly people who are from the Former Soviet Union who were worried about importing people who hate Jews or could act violently against Jews,” Moskovitz said.

The rabbi reported that following the conversations, these individuals either agreed with the sponsorship plan, or at least decided not to try to block it.

Other Jewish congregations in Vancouver were also asking themselves what they could do to help alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis. Moskovitz saw this as a unique opportunity for Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal congregations in the city to collaborate. The subject was discussed among members of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, and as a result other synagogues have joined Temple Sholom in sponsoring refugee families. In order to fast-track the process, the congregations are partnering with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, which has been pre-approved by Canadian authorities as a sponsorship agreement holder (SAH).

According to Moskovitz, almost all of the 20 medium-to-large size Reform congregations in Canada are sponsoring one or more Syrian refugee families. The group is also working to form partnerships with Reform congregations in the US that are unable due to current US policy to carry out similar sponsorships. Moskovitz expects the American congregations’ involvement will be to prepare and send necessary supplies and care packages for the families resettling in Canada.

The sanctuary at Temple Sholom, Vancouver. (Courtesy)
The sanctuary at Temple Sholom, Vancouver (Courtesy)

Although small and not officially affiliated with the Reform movement, Beth Israel Synagogue in Peterborough is raising funds to sponsor a refugee family. The congregation is working together with a local Jewish-Christian-Muslim interfaith group called The Abraham Festival on the project.

“Our synagogue is acting as the fiscal agent and issuing the tax receipts to donors,” said Beth Israel president Larry Gillman.

“We’ve already identified a family we want to help through the Canadian government, and we are working together to bring them here.”

At the same time that Gillman’s congregation has been keeping an eye on what is happening far away in Syria, it has also reached out to help their local Muslim neighbors. Beth Israel has offered its building as a temporary prayer and meeting space for the 1,000 worshipers at Peterborough’s Masjid al-Salaam mosque, which was the target of an arson attack on November 14, the day after coordinated terrorists attacks on Paris carried out by Islamic State militants. Peterborough police chief Murray Rodd has characterized the arson attack as a hate crime.

Larry Gillman, president of Beth Israel Synagogue, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. (Courtesy)
Larry Gillman, president of Beth Israel Synagogue, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada (Courtesy)

“To my mind, it was clearly a hate crime. There is no question about it,” Gillman told The Times of Israel.

Members of the mosque will hold prayer at a Peterborough church today and will begin using space at the synagogue next week. The Jewish congregation is welcoming the Muslim worshipers for as long as it takes for their torched mosque to be repaired. The damage has been estimated at $80,000. In the meantime, a community crowdfunding effort has raised $30,000 in excess of that amount for the repairs.

Gillman said that Peterborough Jews have always been concerned about security, but that they continue to see Canadians as peace-loving people and to have faith that their community is made up of good, kind individuals.

“The attack on the mosque wasn’t a total surprise. You can’t be surprised about something like that in the world we live in. Some crazy person in Peterborough perpetrated a hate crime, and it could have been directed at our synagogue. That’s why we need to stand together with people of all faiths in our community,” Gillman said.

According to Moskovitz, the Vancouver Jewish community is also on alert and has security systems in place.

“We feel tremendously secure here in Canada, but we are at the same time vigilant,” he said.

Focusing on the positive, Temple Sholom’s members are gearing up to help the family they are sponsoring get settled upon their arrival.

“This will not be a small project. We will be responsible not only for raising enough money to show the Canadian government that we can support a family for a year; we will also be responsible for everything from meeting them at the airport to finding them a place to live, from helping them learn English to helping them find work and schools,” Moskovitz warned his congregants in his High Holiday sermon.

Undeterred, congregants with skills or connections in education, social work, medicine and real estate have voluntarily stepped up to assist.

Several hundred Syrian refugees wait to cross into Turkey at the border in Suruc, Turkey, on Sunday, September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Several hundred Syrian refugees wait to cross into Turkey at the border in Suruc, Turkey, September 21, 2014. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

The rabbi expects relationships that do not yet exist between Vancouver synagogues and local mosques and Muslim organizations to develop as a result of the refugees’ Jewish sponsors helping them to connect to their religious and cultural communities as they settle in.

This may be a positive byproduct of the sponsorship process, but Moskovitz said that when it comes down to it, religion is not really a factor in the effort to help Syrian refugees.

“We are not looking at the religion of these families. We are looking at them as human beings,” he said.

There is a great sense of pride among Temple Sholom’s members about the sponsorship, and there has been an ever-greater sense of clarity in the last week that it is the right thing to do.

“This has to be the Jewish response after what happened in Paris. We need to see the world though a lens of empathy. We shouldn’t blame a refugee crisis for terrorism, when really we should be blaming terrorism for a refugee crisis,” said Moskovitz.

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