Jewish Challenges
Jan 17th 2016

As Jews and Canadians, we face many challenges. We are called to broaden access to Jewish education, creatively continue our tradition, attend to our elderly, support Israel, and defend democratic and free societies. In addition, we must care for poor Jews and provide humanitarian assistance to those who are outside the borders of our community. 

Having grown up in poverty, I am sensitive to its presence in the Toronto Jewish community: The children who go to school hungry in the morning. The Holocaust survivors who count their pennies when shopping. The former Russian Jews who came for freedom but lack food. The woman who places kiddush crumbs into her purse after services. The families who depend on kosher packages for their Shabbat tables and spring deliveries for Pesaẖ. The single parent holding onto a low-paying job while caring for a child. The homeless we feed at Out of the Cold and the hungry who draw upon our food banks. The unseen Jews who live in the cracks and crevices of our city. 

The 13 percent of Toronto Jews who live in poverty are doubly invisible: unrecognized by the general public who believe that “all Jews are rich” and unnoticed by Jews who don’t deal with the displaced and downtrodden on a daily basis. As individuals and a community, we have an obligation to see the faces of the poor and to recognize in them (their faces) the image of God. 

The Talmud teaches that poverty “drives a person crazy” by eroding the human being and negatively shaping a person’s life experiences (TB Eruvin 41b). The ethical challenge confronts us: what will we do? While none of us may be able to single-handedly end poverty, we can play a role. 

To fight poverty, we must be aware of the problem and what contributes to poverty, including low wages, unemployment, limited access to education, discrimination, lack of affordable housing and more. Given the complicated nature of poverty, we can work in concert with UJA Federation and its agencies, federal and provincial governments, other social service providers and generous individuals to address complex causes and make a dent in the symptoms. 

Directed by the well-known teaching of Maimonides detailing eight levels of tzedakah, we know that the highest level is helping people to become self-sufficient. In addition, we should ask how to create a society in which full-time workers can earn enough money to support a family. We are pushed forward by the mandate of our sacred tradition: When your kin falls, do not turn away; uphold that person. When you reap your harvest, leave a portion for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Then the Eternal will bless you. 

Concern for and about refugees has spread from Africa to Italy, from Syria to Jordan, from the Middle East to Europe. It has become a major political issue in the United States and Canada. I hear about it from Uber drivers and congregants, from those who see resettlement as a mitzvah and those wary of opening our doors. 

Those who are anxious often reflect words articulated by the President of the United States: “The refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries.” This was said by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, referring to Jewish refugees. 

In Canada, the research of Irving Abella and Harold Troper in the Canadian National Archives revealed similar resistance. This letter was addressed to the Immigration Department in 1939: 

In great need and distress, [we] address you for help and rescue. Our distress, particularly that of our children … increases daily and there is nothing left for us but suicide. … We appeal to you for a permit to enter your country. Surely there are people left in this world, people who will have pity on us, people who will save us. My wife will refuse no work. We will farm, we will keep house, we will do anything in order to enter your country. Please do not let our cry for help go unheeded. Please save us before it is too late. 

—Jacob and Cecilia Stein 

And to the cream of European Jewish society, the Stein family and many others, the same response was issued from the Department of Immigration: 

Unfortunately, though we greatly sympathise with your circumstances, at present the Canadian government is not admitting Jews. Please try another country.

Of course, as Professors Abella and Troper note, “there was no other country.” 

In spite of resistance to refugee resettlement, we Jews must remember that we too have been migrants and refugees. We have learned to care for the stranger, not only from the 36 verses in the Torah where we are so commanded, but also from our own recent trauma. We know the heart of the stranger. 

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman says Judaism teaches an “empathic justice,” which “seeks to make people identify themselves with [the] needs [of others], with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.” 

Following World War II, more than six million wartime refugees, displaced persons, were repatriated, but between 1.5 million and two million displaced persons refused to return to eastern Europe. Most Jewish survivors were unwilling because of postwar antisemitism and the destruction of their communities during the Holocaust. 

At its peak in 1947, the Jewish displaced person population reached approximately 250,000. Jews pressed for greater immigration opportunities and the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. My in-laws were smuggled into France. There was “illegal” immigration to British Palestine. France, Britain, Canada and the United States reluctantly agreed to accept refugees. 

Our ancestor Abraham went out of his way to aid migrants. According to a midrash, he set up shelter on the roads so that the poor and the wayfarer would have access to food and drink when in need. 

Through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR), convened by the Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish organizations have been quietly funding relief efforts for Syrian refugees for the past two years. This consortium of nearly 50 organizations pools resources and provides a coordinated response in keeping with the long tradition of Jewish humanitarianism. Assistance has been delivered in Jordan, which has seen more than 625,000 registered refugees since the start of the fighting in Syria. Recently, the mandate of aid has been expanded to include refugees and migrants in Europe and the Middle East.

Currently, the City of Toronto is planning to accept about 40 percent of all Syrian refugees to Canada: 900 are being processed by Canadian authorities every day. Our government will do proper screenings for security and health concerns. Through JIAS, the Jewish community has 30 groups working with ten to 15 families, a number proportionate to our population. Our congregation is honoured to be among them. You may read more about this on page 41. 

In this song, Uruguayan folk-rock musician Jorge Drexler offered tribute to the policies that saved his refugee grandparents, fleeing Nazi Germany: 

Everyone said no, and Bolivia said yes ... 
The pendulum comes and goes ...
those who today have it all
tomorrow implore for it all.
The water wheel turns
destinies around ...
all history is a revolving door. 

The Talmud teaches that each person has a mitzvah that comes at a particular time and place: “Every person has a distinctive hour; everything has its distinctive place.” (Avot 4.3) Refugee resettlement is our mitzvah. This is our time. This is our place. Let’s do it.

A version of this essay was delivered at the annual general meeting of JIAS Toronto on December 1, 2015. Click here>>