As an American happily living here in Canada at this point in history, I, like many of us, have been dismayed for over a year (!) by the U.S. election. I am not going to comment on the policy positions of the winner (ask me at kiddush after services for my opinions), and I don’t want this reflection to be seen as political commentary, for what I want to write about is chesed. Love, kindness, grace, empathy–the Jewish concept of chesed contains all of these things, and chesed is about putting these virtues into action. Our world needs more individuals living lives of chesed and more societies being guided by chesed.
We are blessed to live in Canada. So many democracies in the world are closing themselves off with walls figurative and maybe literal. But, we live in an open society that welcomes diversity and sees itself as a place of refuge for those with no place to go. Of course there are issues, Canada is not a utopia, but I feel its giving spirit, its spirit of chesed.
Members of Holy Blossom, of course, have been doing acts of chesed by fulfilling the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger by taking part in the Canadian program of refugee sponsorship. I have written about how this initiative got off the ground and about the arrival of the first family that our members are sponsoring. I thought for this reflection I would ask some Holy Blossom people why–what motivates them, what inspires them to do this important work.
Jemma Helfman got involved because: “My cousin in London had been posting things on Facebook about Syria for some time. In late Summer 2015 she created a Facebook event for people to march and campaign the UK government on the issue. The day after she created her event, the Aylan Kurdi photo came out and her event went viral. In 11 days she organised a march which ended up having about 100,000 attendees! When I started hearing about what was possible to help Syrian refugees come to Canada I couldn’t help but get involved and encourage others to do so too.”
Karen Minden wrote this: “My grandparents were refugees to Canada–I think its in our DNA to respond to the plight of dispossessed people. We were very involved in sponsoring Vietnamese boat people some decades ago. It took a nanosecond after I learned about the plight of Syrian refugees to decide to help, and my natural ‘go to’ was Holy Blossom . . . I truly appreciate that a faith-based community is a natural place for people to come together to respond to the needs of others.
“Meetings the grandparents [of the Syrian family] was a deeply moving experience for me. We did not understand one word of each other’s language, but the eyes said it all. I knew they knew that we both understood the feelings of anguish and relief in helping our children and grandchildren through life’s struggles. The feeling of heart to heart connection without language was powerful.”
Leanne Hazon also brings up her family history for one of the reasons she got involved. “My father was a refugee as a child and I know how difficult it was for him to adjust to life in a new land and then to come to Canada as an adult and start all over again. As an Iraqi Jew, he also respected his Muslim friends and neighbours growing up and taught me to do the same. So when I saw what was happening to Syrian refugees and the government announced a private sponsorship opportunity, I felt compelled to help. I also really wanted to do it with a Jewish group to show the Muslim community that there are Jews who care about them too. I think cross-cultural relationships and understanding can help the world move toward peace so we need to reach out to get to know each other and lend a hand.”
Alberto Quiroz agrees that meeting the family members really moved him: “Seeing [the son] greeting his parents at the airport, after seven years of separation, and experiencing their emotion as he hugged and kissed his mom and dad, swelled my eyes and put a know in my throat. Hearing from [one couple] about how they ran away from their home town while it was being destroyed by the Syrian air force, and seeing how their eyes fill with tears as they retell and recall the details. Hearing how grateful they are for the help and care they are receiving from us brings a human dimension to a problem that for a lot of us is far away and for those who volunteer, brings meaning to Tikkun Olam.”
Brenda Spiegler seconds the idea of Tikkun Olam–repairing the world. “I feel strongly about doing something concrete to help in the refugee crisis. Giving money is one thing (and important), but actually helping a family find safety and security in our country is more meaningful to me. Being involved with this project gives me an avenue to help ‘heal the world’ within my own faith community.I look forward to seeing our family learn English, learn to navigate our system and find work so that they can be self-sustaining. This is what they want most. The kids are well on their way to integration already!”
The chesed of our members has inspired people around the world. Just one amazing example: Our member, Joseph Young, represents a man named Moutaz Alkhayyat who is from Syria and now lives in Qatar. Joseph told him about our members efferts and Alkhayyat was so moved that members of a synagogue are helping his people, that he has donated a large some of money to continue the good work. This work of hesed is bringing Muslims and Jews together. The volunteers see their work as a mitzvah–a Jewish obligation. Freda Muscovitch writes, “It is a mitzvah that helps me be proud of who I am and my Temple. We are not afraid to stand up to the marginalized in our community . . . I never forget that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. I never forget that my ancestors left Spain because of Inquisition, and I never forget that my mother in law left Odessa because of pogroms.”
There is still much work to do. Jemma Helfman writes, “We should keep doing what we have been doing. There are several more family groups in the pipeline, so if people are interested in becoming involved they should email Jacqueline Friedland who is coordinating our response and ask to be added to her email list.”
If anyone at Holy Blossom wants to learn about other ways to express hesed, please get a hold of me. My door on the third floor is open.