News items and articles on assistance to Syrian refugees by Israeli and Jewish organizations and individuals

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.

2016-04-23T22:02:38+00:00 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.

2016-04-11T09:52:04+00:00 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.

2016-04-04T08:11:28+00:00 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.

2016-03-22T00:07:30+00:00 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.

2016-03-15T01:25:47+00:00 March 15th, 2016|

Tablet article on Israeli NGO’s assistance to Syrian refugees in Serbia

tablet-march

Tablet Magazine ran a lengthy article on the Natan Israeli humanitarian NGO’s aid efforts and medical assistance to refugees crossing the Serbia-Macedonia border.

Several things stand out from reading the piece. In the several days that the writer, Amir Tibon, was at the field clinic, he counted no less than 30 babies, 10 pregnant women, seven people in wheelchairs, there patients suffering from diabetes, one blind person and two individuals who had lost limbs. These truly are among the most needy and desperate individuals to flee the Middle East, and there is no overstating the importance of the medical assistance that the Israeli medical staff provided these refugees.

Second, despite their desperate medical situation and need for rest, few of the refugees stayed more than a few hours or more than a night, recuperating at the clinic. All were desperate to continue on to Germany or Sweden, lest they be trapped behind closed borders. There can be no better indication or proof of the desperation of these unfortunate refugees.

There has been alot of understandable ambivalence on the part of many Jews and Israelis on assisting people from countries and societies that have traditionally been hostile to the Jewish people. In the end though, no one can be forced or pressured into offering charity, charity has to be freely given.

But Dr. Eitan Damari from Be’er Sheva very eloquently summed up the conflict between politics and the moral imperative;

Look, you can be racist in politics, everyone is a bit like that these days, but when it comes to medical treatment, the rules are different. When you see a person that needs help, you don’t ask them where they’re from or what’s their religion. You just help them. That’s what you have to do.

And finally, in the article, the aid being offered by the Natan medical team is described as “Advil for cancer”.

No. Speaking as a refugee myself, I can say that to a desperate person in a strange land, there is no such thing as “just Advil”, not when most of the world has closed their borders to Syrian refugees and many countries such as Slovenia, Poland and the USA won’t even tolerate our very presence. Refugees notice and remember the most trivial of interactions. A kind smile or a screaming policeman. Free meals and unscrupulous smugglers. Donated cloth or doors shut in their faces.

Every “Advil” offered in kindness and compassion is hope to a refugee, hope that somewhere in the world there are enough charitable people that a refugee and their family will be able to make a home for themselves, to put together the pieces of lives torn apart by Middle Eastern despots and warlords. When one is a refugee, the hope generated by kind donations of food,shelter and medicine far, far outweighs the material cost of the aid offered.

“Just Advil”? The hope that Natan and other Israeli aid organizations are giving to the refugees trekking across European countries is beyond measure. It is the sort of aid that can never be repaid in full.

2016-03-12T03:31:14+00:00 March 12th, 2016|

Jewish Community of Amherst hosts benefit for Syrian refugees

To call the current political climate in the USA toxic towards refugees from the Middle East would be an understatement. With the political discourse regarding Syrian refugees currently consisting of a race between politicians to outdo one another in sheer xenophobia and fear mongering, it takes an especially brave group of people in the USA to be seen to be sympathetic to refugees.

Which makes the generosity of the Massachusetts based Jewish Community of Amherst in holding a benefit for Syrian refugees all the more remarkable. The Daily Collegian has an article on the very creative fundraising event the JCA hosted at the end of January 2016 to raise money to assist displaced Syrians.

Consisting of a musical performance and a meal of three soups based on the recipes of Barbara Massaad’s “Soup for Syria” cookbook, the event managed to raise over $5,000 dollars for humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts and a member of the JCA, noted that while the Syrian refugee crisis was the largest humanitarian disaster since World War 2, a certain degree of donor and “compassion” fatigue seemed to have set in regarding humanitarian efforts towards Syrian refugees.

In the very globalized world we live in, neither closing our minds nor our borders to the mass displacement of people will keep the problem away from us. Leaving millions of Syrians in a warzone or transitory living space is a recipe for long-term political disaster.

As the Syrian conflict drags on into its fifth year, Jewish communities the world over have time and again shown an amazing depth of compassion and generosity towards Syrian refugees, at a time when much of the world seems largely resigned to regarding the refugee crisis as unsolvable.

And the fact that the good people of the JCA opened their hearts to the plight of Syrians, in direct contrast to the prevailing mood and trend in the USA to demonize and vilify those same refugees, speaks volumes of the moral fiber, generosity and character of the Jewish community in Amherst. In dark days such as these, acts of compassion and humanity as exemplified by the members of the Jewish Community of Amherst shine all the more brightly.

To read the entire Daily Collegian article, click here.

2016-03-02T23:24:02+00:00 March 2nd, 2016|

IL4Syria;the Israelis who succeeded where the UN & “anti-ISIS” coalition failed

With the brutal Syrian conflict entering its sixth year, the plight of civilians trapped by the war inside the country has grown increasingly more desperate, with entire neighborhoods and towns besieged by the Syrian Army and its Hizbollah & Iranian terrorist allies.

International efforts to provide relief and assistance to civilians trapped by the war have amounted to little; UN aid to areas affected by the conflict has been less than a trickle, the vast amount having been appropriated by the regime to distribute among its own supporters, with very little aid actually reaching besieged communities. Time and again, diplomatic squabbling and the UN’s own desire to avoid alienating the Assad regime have worked to strangle any meaningful assistance to civilians who have endured years of siege and starvation tactics, in addition to indiscriminate bombings of hospitals, schools, aid clinics and bakeries, first from the regime’s airforce and more recently at the hands of Russian warplanes.

And the “anti-ISIS” coalition currently running bombing raids all over Syria haven’t been much better. Apparently, the entire combined air-forces of the “coalition” cannot manage to airdrop life saving basic supplies such as bread and water to civilians who have been besieged by the regime for years.

And yet where the UN and the “anti-ISIS” coalition have so abjectly failed, a group of a couple of hundred Israeli civilian aid workers have succeeded, managing the superhuman and heroic feat of transporting life saving food, survival kits and even medical equipment for entire clinics to deep within Syria, assisting communities which have borne the brunt of the joint regime-Hizbollah-Iranian-Russian onslaught.

Israel21C published an article extensively detailing the astounding efforts of IL4Syria, an Israeli NGO of around 200 Israeli volunteers, and who have been providing aid to Syrian civilians affected by the war since the earliest days of the conflict. From providing such basic items as food, baby powder and medical supplies, IL4Syria’s efforts evolved as the conflict grew more brutal.

The list of assistance provided by IL4Syria is remarkable;supplies for 17 field hospitals, the training of Syrian civil defense volunteers,thousands of chemical suits to help doctors treat patients affected by the repeated regime chemical weapons attacks on civilian areas, 3D printers to print out prosthetic limbs. More assistance has been provided to besieged Syrians by the small group of Israeli volunteers than the entire UN has managed, with its hopelessly broken system of appeasement of and collusion with the Assad dictatorship.

The dangers these Israeli volunteers risk cannot be overstated. The Syrian war is by far and away the most brutal conflict in decades, with much of the country overrun by Hizbollah, Iranian mercenaries, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other terror groups in open hostility to Israel. And yet the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians who have benefited from IL4Syria‘s assistance would undoubtedly not be alive today were it not for that aid.

History will record that while the UN dithered for years and the “anti-ISIS” coalition remained oblivious to the ordeal of Syrians trapped by the war, it was Israeli volunteers who provided life saving assistance to civilians in need. The scope of the efforts, and the dangers the volunteers risked to deliver them, are truly heroic. And without a doubt, history will regard the efforts and work of the Israeli volunteers of IL4Syria to help Syrians trapped by the war, as one of the greatest feats of humanitarian assistance ever carried out.

To read the entire Israel21c article, click here.

2016-02-27T23:38:50+00:00 February 27th, 2016|

Dramatic video of IsraAID teams helping refugees on Lesbos

israaid_greece_lesbos1

The Kikar Ha Shabat web portal posted a very dramatic video of an IsraAID medical team treating and assisting refugees on the very beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos, literally the front line of the refugee crisis. The description of the ordeals the refugees go through to reach Lesbos are harrowing to say the least. Mistreated and exploited by smugglers in Turkey, refugees are crowded 150 on boats meant for only a third of that number, with barely enough fuel in the engine to reach halfway to Greece.

But those who manage to reach Lesbos find a well organized and highly efficient IsraAID team of medical and aid volunteers. Boats are tracked as soon as they come into binocular range, and medical assistance, warm cloth and sustenance is provided the moment the refugees are helped out of the boats onto the beach. And the comfort and relief a refugee experiences on finding Arabic speakers among the rescue team cannot be overstated.

Nor the personal risks that the IsraAID team members run. Needless to say, they have no idea who they will be meeting on the beaches of Lesbos on any given day, only that they will be strangers, not just from Syria, but from other countries that have traditionally been hostile to Jews and Israelis.

And that they are strangers in need of help. After days and possibly weeks of being exploited at the hands of remorseless human smugglers, and risking their lives on a terrifying journey to a strange land, the welcome and assistance provided by the IsraAID volunteers is something no refugee will forget for the rest of their lives.

To see the video in its entirety click here.

2016-02-23T20:05:34+00:00 February 23rd, 2016|

Tablet Magazine; Canadian Jewish congregations & their efforts to sponsor Syrian refugees

Photo by Tablet Magazine

Photo by Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine has an excellent article by Philip Moscovitch on the recent efforts by Canadian-Jewish congregations to sponsor and support Syrian refugee families to resettle in Canada. From Vancouver to Alberta, Toronto and Montreal, and many smaller towns and cities, more than two dozen congregations have raised funds and committed to sponsoring Syrian families under Canada’s Private Sponsorship Program.

With no similar program in place in the USA, Jewish congregations in the USA with a desire to assist Syrian refugees, such as the Community Synagogue of Rye, New York, have contributed to the efforts of their Canadian counterparts with huge monetary donations.

The understandable apprehension and ambivalence of many in the Canadian Jewish community to bringing in families from a region whose people have traditionally been hostile to Jews is acknowledged in the article. As one Temple Sholom said; “I don’t hate Muslims, but I am afraid.”

Which makes the efforts by Canada’s Jewish communities to assist Syrians all the more remarkable. The highest expression of humanity is to help a stranger when every survival instinct tells one not to, to take responsibility for a family who may have spent their lives in an environment with values in stark contrast to your own, to give so much effort, time and money on a people who have nothing to offer back except their thanks. The generous sentiments of Jewish communities, in Canada and around the world towards Syrian refugees is not only remarkable, it is miraculous.

To read the original Tablet Magazine article, click here.

2016-02-21T05:15:20+00:00 February 21st, 2016|
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