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Syrian Refugee Crisis

10/28/2016 09:16:07 AM


Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot 5777

One year ago September, the voyage started in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m. The smugglers had promised a motorboat for the trip from Turkey to Greece. Instead they showed up with a  15 foot rubber raft. It was the season when the waves in this part of the Mediterranean can be 15 feet high. The raft eventually flipped in high waves dumping Abdullah Kurdi, his wife and two small sons into the sea.

Mr. Kurdi survived and painfully described how he had flailed about while trying to find his children as his wife held on to the capsized boat. It was the image of Mr. Kurdi’s three-year old son Alan in his red t-shirt and shorts lying lifeless on a Turkish beach that has stirred the world’s compassion for those fleeing the Syrian civil war. This photograph prompted international responses from humanitarian and social justice groups.

The members of my shul in Toronto (Shaarei Shomayim) read this story last September with special sensitivity. The Toronto Jewish community as a whole is comprised of a many holocaust survivors and their descendants. Who remember that the world shut its doors to the Jews during world war II.

They remembered when politicians in America and Canada said that no country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jews who wanted to flee from Europe. So they shut their doors to the Jews. And so as community of second generation survivors we asked ourselves can we say because the refugee problem in Syria is so great, that we will do nothing? Can we say that Syrian refugees are not a “Jewish problem?” We know what it was like to be refugees. How do we react when we see others forced to flee? We came to the conclusion that if we are still asking how others could have abandoned us 75 years ago, then we cannot abandon others now.

And so under the leadership of my mentor, the senior Rabbi at Shaarei Shomayim, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, we raised 30k in one week to sponsor a Christian family living in Aleppo, to immigrate to Toronto, where they had some cousins who would help them settle in and adjust to the new culture and climate.

We had internal arguments about the ethics of raising funds for causes outside the Jewish community when the needs of the Jewish community were so grave but the overwhelming majority of the shul agreed that this was their moral duty as Jews and as human beings.

Our social action committee which took the lead on this project worked with JIAS (Jewish Immigration Aid services) to choose a family to sponsor. A few months later we began to learn more about the family we were bringing over to North America. The parents’ names are Sarkiss and Caroline. They have two children Alina, age 5, and Christina, age 8 months.

The family is scheduled to arrive in Toronto in the next few weeks and the community is very excited to see their efforts come to fruition.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhcak Yosef said this week: Every day not far from here, as we sit here, men, women and children are murdered in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo, 250,000 people have been killed, 12 million people are homeless, hundreds of thousands of others are being starved, under siege. The Syrian people are not our friends, but they are human beings who are suffering a small holocaust. As Jews we must not stay silent. The call must be heard from here: A genocide will not be allowed to go by quietly — not in Syria and not anywhere else, and not against any people.

This is a powerful statement, on many levels, from a sephardic chief rabbi. He called what is happening in Syria a mini holocaust. He acknowledged that Syria and its government has never been a close friend of Israel or its citizens. Far from it. But there is a need to distinguish between enemies and innocent civilians who are suffering. We can and should still feel pain and take some responsibility for these people because of our shared humanity. Indeed this is part of our moral obligation, living just two generations after WW II. The chief rabbi is saying that all of us need to be concerned. We need to be deeply deeply disturbed. Outraged at what is happening in Allepo. It is a humanitarian disaster.

It is a very messy web of fighting between the Asad regime and the rebels and all of the various backers and colluders, and I am certainly no expert on understanding or diagnosing a political or military solution to this situation. But I can reconfirm, and reemphasize, as did Rav Yitzchak Yosef, that from a religious and humanitarian standpoint, we need to be thinking about this and that we need to be feeling disturbed about this. This needs to be on a radar in a serious way.

I am sharing this story, this information and this sentiment with you, specifically on chol hamoed sukkot because, I believe that sukkot offers us a constructive paradigm for relating to the conflict in Syria. Sukkot sends the message that we might not know what the right political action is at this moment. We don’t know how to untangle the messy alliances in the region right now but we can still think and do something about the humanitarian crisis which is worsening by the day.

Sukkot is a holiday that directs us to think not just about ourselves but about the world. It is a holiday that belongs not only to the particularistic series of the shalosh regalim—pesach, shavout and sukkot which commemorate and celebrate specific historical events that took place for the Jewish people alone—from the liberation from Egypt, to receiving the Torah and being protected in the dessert. It is also part of a more universalistic cycle of holidays. Sukkot belongs to a series of holidays that proceed it namely, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur which are days that are relevant not just to Jews and Judaism but to humanity as a whole.

The language of the prayers is different. We say: v’ematcha al kol mah shebarata ‘Instill your awe upon all Your works, and fear of You on all that You have created.’ The entire liturgy is strikingly universalist. The ‘Yamim Noraim’ are about the sovereignty of Hashem over all humankind. We reflect on the human, not just the Jewish, condition. On these days, not only are the Jews judged. The entire universe is judged. And sukkot is part of this universal series of holidays.

How so?

Chazal say:

משנה מסכת ראש השנה פרק א

ובחג נידונין על המים

On sukkot the entire world is judged, specifically for water. The Navi zecharia warns

זכריה פרק יד

יז) וְהָיָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא יַעֲלֶה מֵאֵת מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאָרֶץ אֶל יְרוּשָׁלִַם לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְמֶלֶךְ יְקֹוָק צְבָאוֹת וְלֹא עֲלֵיהֶם יִהְיֶה הַגָּשֶׁם:

That if any of the nations of the world refuse to celebrate Sukkot in the times of the Mashiach. Then they will have no rain. The Navi emphasized that Sukkot is not just about the need for rain in Israel. It is also about the universal need for rain and for water.

This need could not be more dire than it is in Syria right now. Regime airstrikes this month left 1.75 million people without water. Hydrologists and humanitarian groups on the ground have been sending warning signals that lack of access to safe drinking water is pushing more people to flee from their homes to find water. Polluted water and lack of water has led to thousands of children catching and spreading diseases like typhoid and diarrhea which can be deadly due to lack of medical care. Water supplies are deteriorating fast making the humanitarian crises exponentially worse.

When we daven on Sukkot and specifically during tephillat geshem on Shmini atzeret, it would be appropriate to be thinking about Syrians, who are dying from lack of drinking water. It would be appropriate to be thinking about the refugees who are starving to death. As sensitive people and sensitive jews, our prayers need to be expansive and have a universal reach, specifically on sukkot and specifically with regard to water in the year ahead.

This is an important start to social activism. Next steps, I believe should follow only after we can cultivate the appropriate religious consciousness. If you have ideas for next steps and potential projects please share them. I am not sure what the right direction is for our community to get involved. I am not sure that sponsoring a Christian family suits our strengths as a community. But we should be able to do something else. Please be in touch with myself or Dede Jacobs Komisar ( who has expressed interest in this project.

The work is great but we cannot turn our heads at this time. May Hashem help us to add a little bit of light to this dark and messy situation.


Sun, December 3 2023 20 Kislev 5784