‘Thank God, there are almost no Jews in Syria now,’ says the woman who rescued most of them

Over almost 30 years from the mid-1970s, Judy Feld Carr, a music teacher from Toronto, arranged to smuggle 3,228 Jews out of Syria. Amid the brutal civil war raging there today, the importance of that remarkable life-saving operation has never been more evident

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Jewish school children in the Maimonides School of Damascus in 1991 (photo credit: David Lisbona)
Jewish school children in the Maimonides School of Damascus in 1991 (photo credit: David Lisbona)

Horrified, Judy Feld Carr closely follows the news coming out of Syria, where government troops and rebels are waging a bloody civil war. The former music teacher from Toronto has never been to Syria, yet she has a special connection to the country, and especially to the Jewish community that used to live there.

For nearly three decades, Feld Carr single-handedly arranged the smuggling of more than 3,000 Jews out of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli to safety in Israel and America. At the time, the totalitarian Syrian regime didn’t allow Jews to emigrate and tortured those caught trying to escape. But lower officials, she found out, could be bribed into letting Jews leave.

“Oh, my dear,” she says when asked what’s going through her head as she hears the reports from the war zone. “Thank God the Jewish community is out. That’s my first thought. Because if you had a sizable community of 3,000 people, this would be a major problem.”

Rescued more than 3,000 Syrian Jews: Judy Feld Carr (photo credit: courtesy)
Judy Feld Carr rescued more than 3,000 Syrian Jews: (photo credit: courtesy)

Feld Carr, who lives in Toronto and has an apartment in Jerusalem, says that both sides in the current war — the troops of President Bashar Assad and the anti-government forces — are committing acts of sheer brutality. “It’s beyond barbaric. There’s nothing to describe it,” she says. “There’s no meaning to each other’s life. And that really scares me. Because if they do it to each other, what would they do to foreign countries, their neighboring countries?”

While the civil war, which started in March 2011, has reportedly already claimed more than 20,000 lives, Feld Carr is especially disgusted by reports of gratuitous savagery, such as when rebels cut off a Syrian soldier’s head with a knife — because she says she knows pretty well the kind of cruelty Syrian troops are capable of.

“I can’t even fathom such barbarism — although in the years that I was doing this rescue, what they did to Jewish prisoners was beyond everything I could have ever believed,” she told The Times of Israel recently. “I don’t think the Jews would be alive today if that community of over 3,000 was still there. I can tell you that.”

In the 1970s, when Feld Carr started her covert escape operation, some 4,600 Jews still lived in Syria, she says. Bribing Syrian officials, including senior members of the country’s intelligence community, she was able to arrange to smuggle out exactly 3,228 Jews. “One at a time.”

The unlikely saga of a protracted covert rescue operation led by an Ashkenazi musicologist who grew up in Sudbury, northern Canada, began when she and her late husband first learned about the plight of Syrian Jewry. The issue wasn’t very much in vogue in the early-to-mid-1970s, as most Jewish activists were focused on demanding freedom for their brethren in the Soviet Union.

After an initial phone calls to a synagogue in Damascus, she and her late husband started sending packages with religious items to the local Jewish communities. After a while, she started communicating via these packages, hiding coded messages in them.

In 1975, an Aleppo-born Jew living in Toronto went to visit her brother, who was still living in Aleppo. She was imprisoned there but made it out and returned to Canada. “She brought me, tucked into her underwear, a letter,” Feld Carr recalls. “It’s a letter that you only see during the times of the Holocaust. It was a letter written by three rabbis in Aleppo, saying something to the effect that: ‘Our children are your children. Get us out of here!’”

Jewish school children in Damascus in 1991 (photo credit: David Lisbona)
Jewish schoolchildren in the Maimonides School of Damascus in 1991 (photo credit: David Lisbona)

Two years later, Feld Carr managed to smuggle the first person out of Syria. “It was a straight ransom but it took me ages to do it.” At the time, Canada didn’t have an embassy in Damascus and it was quite an ordeal to bribe the officials to get the refugee the papers he needed to exit the country and board a plane to Toronto, she recalled.

“In those days I didn’t know what I was doing. If you had told me I would be doing a rescue mission I’d have said you’re totally mad. I mean, I am a musicologist, not a rescuer.”

The Syrian Jew arrived in Canada in terrible shape: Because his children had been caught trying to flee, he spent some time in a Syrian prison, where he was badly beaten. On top of that, he was suffering from terminal cancer.

“After we brought him to Mt. Sinai Hospital, he said to me: ‘Judy, I have one thing to ask you: I want to go to Israel. I want to have a cup of coffee with my mother, who’s 97 years old. Then I can die in Israel,’” Feld Carr remembers.

The man was brought to Israel and had coffee with his mother — although she had Alzheimer’s and didn’t recognize him. “Then I saw him in Israel the day before he died at his daughter’s house,” Feld Carr recalls. “He said to me: ‘I have one more thing to ask you. I want you to take out the oldest of my single daughters.’

“Remember: I don’t know yet what I’m really doing. I thought to myself, what do I say to a man who’s dying? So I said, yes rabbi, I will take her out.” Feld Carr succeeded in smuggling the 19-year-old out of the country. Today she is a grandmother and lives in Bat Yam.

“That was the beginning of the ransoming,” Feld Carr says. “I realized there are ways to do it. That’s how it started. It got big time after that, slowly, slowly.”

Financed through private, secret donations by Canadian Jews, Feld Carr’s rescue operation kept on growing, as word spread in the Syrian Jewish community.

She did not initiate the escape attempts. The Jews had to find her. “I never asked anybody to leave. They would try every way to get out. And then they’d hear about this lady in Canada named Ms. Judy. And that’s how it would work.”

Over 28 years, Feld Carr spearheaded a massive exodus, sometimes smuggling out prisoners, sometimes entire families who sought a new life in the Free World. She was not the only player in the field, she says. “There were more than 4,600 Jews in the country” when she started. The others either got out by themselves or were helped by the Israelis.

A Torah scroll from Aleppo. Feld Carr arranged to get it out Syria in 1993 (photo credit: courtesy)
A Torah scroll from Aleppo. Feld Carr arranged to get it out of Syria in 1993 (photo credit: Courtesy)

While the Arab press still accuses of Feld Carr of being a Mossad spy, she is adamant that she operated totally independently. In the beginning of her mission, the Israeli secret service was actually not too fond of her doings, she says.

“Let’s face it: I’m a mommy who lives in Toronto. I’m not an expert in foreign intrigue… It doesn’t blend at all with what my former profession was and being a mother of six kids. But the fact was that, after a long period of time, some of the men and women who were in the [Mossad] certainly respected what I was doing.”

Once the refugees managed to leave Syria, Feld Carr would not seek to get in touch with them — in fact, she says she avoided meeting the Jews she rescued. “They would make these huge lunches and dinners and buy me presents and flowers and jewelry — things they couldn’t afford. I don’t want that,” she says. “The only ones I had some contact with were the ones I took out of prisons. Because they needed a lot of stroking and a lot of hugging.”

‘It was their choice to stay. I could’ve done it. But you can’t make people leave the country’

In 2001, Feld Carr concluded her mission, thinking that there were only about 30 Jews left in the country, who were not interested in leaving. (The US State Department in 2005 estimated there to be “approximately 80 Jews” in Syria but admitted that it was difficult to obtain accurate population figures.)

“As far as I was concerned, I was finished; there was hardly anybody left. The ones that were left were older people who I thought chose to stay because they don’t have children.”

Today, she estimates there to be no more than perhaps 16 Jews remaining in Syria. “If they are even still alive, they must be much older people,” she says. “It was their choice to stay. I could’ve done it. But you can’t make people leave the country.”

Feld Carr has never stepped on Syrian territory — for security reasons, she says. “You wouldn’t be talking to me today if I had been there. Because there were threats against my life all the way through. This was very dangerous work that I was doing. This is why I was so quiet with all of this. It was very secret what I was doing.”

Only in the mid-1990s, with her work mostly completed, did it become public knowledge and she received the recognition that earlier would have jeopardized the entire mission.

“Word cannot express my gratitude to you for 23 years of hard and dangerous work,”
then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote to Feld Carr in 1995. “Very few people, if any, have contributed as greatly as you have. The Jews of Syria who were rescued and the State of Israel owe you so much, and will never be able to reward you as you deserve.”

President Shimon Peres presents Judy Feld Carr the Presidential Medal of Distinction this June. Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres presents Judy Feld Carr the Presidential Medal of Distinction this June (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

Since then, the grandmother of 13 has received countless honors, awards and medals. One of the accolades that means the most to her is the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor, because her case was the first time it was awarded for saving Jews, she says.

Then, just weeks ago, Feld Carr was one of the six first recipients of the Presidential Award of Distinction, which Shimon Peres established earlier this year to honor “individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the State of Israel or to humanity, through their talents, services, or in any other form.”

“That was so amazing and so overwhelming,” she says of the ceremony during which Peres presented the award at his Jerusalem residence. “It’s difficult to put into words how honored I was.”

On the very same night, on June 18, she was also awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. “It was interesting, two medals on the same day,” she says.

Since she was in Israel, she sent one of her daughters to pick it up.

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