A New Jersey Rabbi’s Passover Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky

In an extensive and wide-ranging interview with the Times of Israel’s Lois Goldrich, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky discussed at length his observations and insights into the Syrian refugee crisis, in light of the Jewish holiday of Passover. As a Syrian, I found myself amazed at the fact that a Rabbi in the USA could, by drawing on the lessons of Passover, feel so much sympathy for Syrian refugees, in stark contrast to the apathy towards us on the part of most of the Arab world, many of whom will be reading countless chapters of the Quran but wont move an inch to provide assistance to Syrians.

Rabbi Pitkowsky is the religious leader of the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey. In the interview, the Rabbi posed a very insightful question, relevant not just to the Jewish people but to all the peoples of the world.

What does ‘never again’ mean when it’s not us being attacked?

The Rabbi addressed the complexities of the Syrian refugee crisis; the very notion of Jews helping people from a country in perpetual enmity to the state of Israel, the security risks involved in relocating Syrian refugees to the West, and the charge that some refugees who look to settle in Europe and North America do so more out of economic motives than humanitarian ones.

All these subjects, Rabbi Pitkowsky addressed with observations that were rational and level-headed. The Rabbi displayed a commendably sensible view of the crisis that stands in stark contrast to the xenophobic scare-mongering prevalent in most of American punditry, where politicians are admired for rejecting even five-year old Syrian orphans for relocation to the United States.

The Rabbi also mentioned the strong desire on the part of the congregation’s members to help Syrian refugees, and noted that while Jewish congregations and groups in Canada were deeply involved in sponsoring hundreds of refugee families, a similar option did not exist in the USA. But while the Rabbi admitted he may not have all the answers to this complicated and tragic issue, “The overriding goal is for people not to ignore the issue, and it’s easy to ignore it in our complicated, busy lives.”

As a Syrian who feels let down by his fellow Arabs, I cannot help but admire how the Rabbi’s drawing on the lessons of Passover have lead him to a morally courageous and compassion point of view. In his words;

We’re as free as we can be here in Bergen County, and powerful enough to bring social justice into a seder to cry out for a world that is not what it should be.

Remarkable, that a study of Passover should lead members of a congregation in a far off land, to feel compassion and sympathy to a people who in all likelihood they have never met. In the coming week, many Muslims in the Arab world will be praying five times a day and reading chapter after chapter of the Quran, and yet precious few will be moved to feel the sympathy and compassion for Syrians that Rabbi Pitkowsky expressed. The world, it seems, would be a much better place if more people spent time reading up on the lessons of Passover.

To read the extensive Times of Israel interview with Rabbi Pitkowsky, click here.

April 23rd, 2016|

The Syrian child saved by a compassionate miracle in Israel

Illustrative photo of Rambam Hospital staff (TOI)

Illustrative photo of Rambam Hospital staff (TOI)

Just when the vicious wars of the Middle East causes one to dismay of the nature of human beings in general, someone in the region rises to perform an act of compassion that is not just magnificent, but absolutely miraculous. For the sake of an ill five year old Syrian child, Israel performed the modern day equivalent of laying hands on the sick and curing them of their afflictions.

The Times of Israel ran a report on what will go down in history as one of the most amazing acts of compassion in living memory. At Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, the medical staff treated a Syrian child with severe injuries received from being caught in a crossfire between two warring Syrian militias. Rambam hospital has over the past few years been one of the major Israeli hospitals treating Syrians wounded in the war.

What gave this particular child’s story an extraordinary aspect is what happened after her treatment for her wounds. Doctors at the hospital discovered that the child also suffered from cancer. The doctors’ own medical ethics would not allow them to release the child from their care until she had been treated.

To this end, Israel’s security services helped to locate one of the girl’s relatives for a bone marrow transplant. And locate one they did. In another Arab country, officially at war with Israel.

And they bought that relative to Israel to save the child’s life.

Bought. The Relative. To Israel.

If the Arab world in general wasn’t already in an advanced state of moral and ethical decay, this one act of miraculous compassion on the part of Israel’s medical and security teams should have dramatically changed perceptions and attitudes overnight, and not just regarding Arabs’ attitude towards Jews, but towards one another as well.

It is said that darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. For years, the vicious terror group Daesh have enjoyed widespread media attention through deeds of savage barbarity, and the actions of the medical staff at Rambam is the light that has the capacity to drown out the darkness created by Daesh and groups like it.

In the days of scripture, prophets would change the attitudes of entire societies by being shinning examples and paradigms of compassion and kindness. It would take a miracle to drag the Arab world out of its self destructive nature, but Rambam hospital and the Israeli security teams that helped save the unnamed Syrian child have delivered just such a miracle, that in normal times should have been the spark that finally leads to some introspective soul searching among Arabs, not just regarding their relations with Israel, but towards one another.

Evil versus good. As a Syrian, over the past few years I have seen my own country fall apart. As an Arab, I have seen five other Arab countries follow suit. Israelis might not have any oil, but Israeli society has something much more valuable and precious; boundless compassion, even towards those who regard it as an adversary. Day after day, Israelis are proving that their country is the exact moral opposite of the depravity that is Daesh and Daesh-like group, a contrast as stark as light and day.

It cannot be said enough, Syrians owe a debt a gratitude to Israelis. No Arab country has ever gone to the lengths that Israel did to save a Syrian life. Once again, thank you Am Israel.

To read the original Times of Israel article, click here.

April 11th, 2016|

When Syrian refugees would rather live next to the Israeli border than in Lebanese towns

An improvised Syrian refugee camp on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

An improvised Syrian refugee camp on the Israeli-Lebanese border, closer to Israeli settlements than to any Lebanese communities.

The Jewish Press website posted an article and video by Israel’s Channel One News, of improvised Syrian refugee camps just opposite the Israeli border with Lebanon. The refugee camps were set up opposite the kibbutzim of Dan, Dafna, and Ma’ayan Baruch, far away from any Lebanese towns or population centers, but very close to the Israeli border. As the report noted, “the new camps are closer to Israeli communities than they are to their Lebanese neighbors”.

It should come as little surprise that Syrian refugees would feel safer living near the Israeli border than in some Lebanese communities. In dozens of Lebanese towns and areas, apartheid-like curfews and restrictions are imposed on the movement and presence of Syrians. In the past, members of the Hizbollah terror group have kidnapped defected Syrian soldiers and activists and handed them over to the Syrian regime’s mukhabarat. Syrian refugee camps near the border with Syria itself have often been attacked and burned down by the Lebanese army.

Syrian refugees elsewhere in Lebanon are vulnerable to horrendous exploitation. In early April 2016, a massive forced-sex and prostitution ring in north Beirut was discovered and dismantled, its victims included over 75 Syrian women and girls, a scale of sexual-slavery comparable to the worst outrages committed by the so-called Islamic State.

It is little wonder that many Syrian refugees in Lebanon look upon the Israeli border as a place of sanctuary. Often, it is far safer for a Syrian refugee to be living next door to an Israeli kibbutz than to live in a Lebanese town or city.

To read the original Jewish News article, click here.

April 4th, 2016|

Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam hosts interfaith refugee panel

From left, Martin Mark, Habeeb Alli and Naomi Alboim. Photo by Jodie Shupac for CJ News

From left, Martin Mark, Habeeb Alli and Naomi Alboim. Photo by Jodie Shupac for CJ News

In early February Canadian Jewish News published an article on an interfaith panel on refugees, hosted by Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam. Attended by an audience of over 250, and moderated by Globe and Mail international affairs columnist Doug Saunders, the panel discussed efforts by Toronto’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities to sponsor and integrate refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.

Naomi Alboim, who had previously been involved with Ontario’s efforts to resettle refugees from Indochina in the late ’70s and early 80s, noted that up to 35 sponsorship groups had been formed under the umbrella of the Toronto based Jewish Immigrant Aid Services to sponsor Syrian families.

We’re responding to this crisis as Jews, because it’s the right, humanitarian thing to do, because it’s an opportunity to put our values of welcoming the stranger and tikkun olam into practice, and as [many of us are] children of refugees, we’re paying it forward.

Yet again, one can only marvel in amazement and admiration that there exists today a society such as Canada’s, where interfaith groups can come together to help strangers fleeing far off wars and conflicts. In an age where most of the world treats refugees from Syria with hostility and disdain, communities such as Congregation Darchei Noam stand out in serving as a source of compassion, light and humanity in one of the darkest times in living memory for refugees.

It cannot be said enough; no one could have blamed Jewish congregations anywhere in the world if they had kept the Syrian refugee crisis at arm’s length, and left the task of assisting and resettling those refugees to Muslim communities. The fact that so many in the Jewish diaspora have taken the lead in providing assistance to so many Syrians should be remembered,acknowledged and chronicled as long as there are a people called Syrians. We have such few friends left in this world, Syrians have an obligation never to forget those like Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam who did indeed help and assist us in our darkest days.

To read the entire article by CJ News, click here.

March 22nd, 2016|

Canadian Jewish & Muslim congregations partner to sponsor Syrian family

Temple Har Zion

Canada is one of the few countries in the world where congregations from two different religions can still come together to perform a truly noble and humanitarian deed. While the Levant remains consumed in conflicts fueled by religious and sectarian strife, Canadians remain one of the rare sane people left in the world to whom differences in faith are not a source of division, but an opportunity to do some real, tangible good in these tragic times.

And the example of the humanitarian partnership between Toronto’s Temple Har Zion and the Imam Mahdi Islamic Center to sponsor Syrian refugee families epitomizes the very best of Canadian interfaith values.

Imam Mahid Centre

The Globe and Mail newspaper published an article on the remarkable joint efforts by the Jewish and Muslim congregations to raise $60,000 to sponsor two Syrian families for resettlement in Canada. Working in cooperation with the Jewish Immigration and Aid Services (JIAS), a major Toronto based sponsorship agreement holder, the initiative was launched on March 6th 2016 at an event attended by the Honorable John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees. Remarking on the initiative, the Globe and Mail quoted Mr McCallum as saying;

I went to the mosque, spoke to them and then just walked across the parking with lot with maybe 50 to 100 Muslims into the synagogue, and there were maybe 50 to 100 Jews waiting there. It makes you quite proud to be a Canadian.

“Proud to be a Canadian” indeed. There can hardly be any Arab in the Middle East that retains any rational pride at what Arab societies have become. It has been left to remarkable initiatives such as that between Temple Har Zion and the Imam Mahdi Center, and the compassionate Canadian society that produced the partnership, to offer salvation to Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the failed societies that were Syria and Iraq.

The members of Temple Har Zion and the Imam Mahdi Center came together to save Syrian refugees. One can only hope and pray that the fortunate Syrians who have found salvation in Canada, in due time internalize and adopt the spirit of this remarkable partnership, and the values of the society that was stable enough, and compassionate enough, to offer them a new home.

To donate to the fundraising efforts, please visit the Temple Har Zion’s “Canada Helps” fundraising page.

To read the original Globe and Mail article, click here.

March 15th, 2016|
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