While American political discourse around whether to accept Syrian refugees smolders under the embers of xenophobia, just across the border, Canadian citizens have been opening their hearts and their wallets to bringing in Syrian refugees.
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Canada is one of the only countries with a private sponsorship option, which means that groups of ordinary citizens can provide funds and demonstrate their intention to provide emotional and logistical support to refugee families for one year, thus enabling the absorption of refugees whom the government might not otherwise have been able to afford.
Like many faith and neighborhood communities, Jewish communities, especially through synagogues, are on the front lines of this effort.
It’s not often that a rabbi’s sermon gets reprinted in the daily newspaper of a major city, but such was the case for Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. “For too long, we have thought of religion in passive terms, counting how many people are sitting in the pews or paying dues,” she wrote. “All this is necessary but not sufficient. I want us to count how many lives we change, how many people we help, how many hearts we touch.” Her synagogue is sponsoring at least one refugee family.
Meanwhile, a sermon delivered on Kol Nidre this year by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom in Vancouver helped capture the hearts and minds of his congregants. “Tonight I want to ask you to do something great. I want to ask you to save a life, the life of a stranger – because we were once strangers in the land, because we are human beings and that is the only similarity that we really need.” It didn’t take long for the congregation to come up with the $40,000 necessary to sponsor a refugee family. They are now fundraising to bring a second. Other synagogues across the city — including the Jewish Renewal Or Haneshama, which is sponsoring three families — have followed suit.
In Toronto, Jewish Immigrant Aid Service, one of nearly 100 organizations across the country which enjoys sponsorship agreement-holder rights, has been flooded with sponsoring requests.
I spoke to Ryan Friedman of Darchei Noam and to Pippa Feinstein of First Narayever Congregation, two Toronto-based synagogues that are sponsoring refugees. Feinstein in particular noted that while wanting to “ensure a safe place for any refugee family who is looking to come to Canada,” her congregation is aiming to launch “parallel awareness-raising activities” around the plight of persecuted minorities in the region.
Among those minorities are the Yazidi people of Iraq, who are being faced with a genocide — in the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights — at the hands of ISIS. In collaboration with other faith groups, Winnipeg’s Jewish community has spearheaded an effort to sponsor multiple Yazidi refugees. As Belle Jarniewski described it, “When I saw the article about the mass grave [of the Yazidis], I really responded to it viscerally. It reminded me that we keep talking every year “never again,” and as Jews, we talk about this all the time, how important it isand what are we doing about it?”
In my own city of Ottawa, Lori Rosove and Dara Lithwick of Temple Israel launched a community-wide effort to sponsor a refugee family. As Rosove explained it, “It’s the human thing to do.”
I too have helped launch a cross-denominational grassroots sponsoring effort, working through both Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and the United Church of Canada. Since a handful of us gathered in a neighbor’s living room in early September, we now number 250 participants and have raised $150,000 so far, enabling us to sponsor six families. So as to provide the suggested “soft-landing” that settlement agencies advise, each family will live with a neighborhood host for the first couple of months.
And what of pushback from community members? Rabbi Moskovitz explains that while “95% of his congregants” have been enthusiastic, a few were not. “I met with each individual or group who registered a concern,” explaining the “rigorous UN screening and the Canadian screening [process].”
For their part, American Jewish groups have been doing what they can. There was the statement of moral clarity issued by ten Jewish organizations. And there is a rabbis’ letter drafted by HIAS, urging their elected officials to “welcome the stranger.” In addition to lobbying Congress to accept refugees, and supporting local resettlement agencies in their efforts, the U.S.-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has taken the initiative to help American congregations partner with Canadian ones in order to support their neighbors’ efforts. As RAC Head Rabbi Jonah Pesner told me: “To sit at our [Passover] Seder tables every year and [tell] the story [starting with] ‘my father was a wandering Aramean,’ and to live through 5,000 years as a community of refugees, not to model for the world what it means to welcome the stranger would be an abdication of our legacy.”
So while the U.S. Congress wrings its hands over whether to accept a meagre 10,000 souls, Canada (one-tenth the population of its southern neighbor) has pledged to receive 25,000 Syrian refugees by February, of which 10,000 are expected to be sponsored privately. When private citizens are empowered to help people from across the globe, the bluster and rhetoric can be bypassed while the real work of saving lives and opening hearts can take place.