Around the time of the High Holidays last year, Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Tzedec in Calgary, had lunch with a congregant. Discussing various issues, they talked about the possibility of sponsoring a Syrian family.
“We decided to pursue that and have the congregation get on board and assume responsibility for a family,” Osadchey told the Independent.
With all enthusiastic and supportive of the idea, Osadchey gathered more information through Catholic Immigration Services (CIS). Later, he attended a workshop on how to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.
Through CIS, the rabbi was introduced to an executive of Armenian decent who had married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism. As the woman worked with Osadchey, she took a special interest in the congregation’s sponsorship and wanted to connect them to a particular family – a Christian Armenian family with relatives in Calgary who she personally knows.
“She had a personal connection and we thought that would be a good match, so we proceeded along those lines,” said Osadchey. “We were just simply committed to helping a Syrian refugee family and their religious background was of no particular relevance. We were prepared for Muslim or Christian, either one.” He explained that his congregation has been very active in building bridges in the local Muslim community.
After attending the workshop, the rabbi went back to the board with information about how the process works and the board unanimously passed the motion to adopt the family. Since then, they have been arranging all the paperwork, while the family to be sponsored is currently in Lebanon.
The congregation has been given some preliminary information about the family. “It’s a mother, a father and three children, ages 11 to three months old,” said Osadchey. “So, we’re preparing the various responsibility areas of helping them integrate in Calgary – things such as housing, clothing, food, transportation, jobs, and so forth.”
Osadchey has also reached out to Jewish Family Service Calgary to see if they can help with jobs; the parents are in the jewelry trade.
While the paperwork is being done, the community and congregation are offering support in many ways, from preparing to help with language needs, to collecting household furniture and other items the family may need.
While the local Armenian Christian community in Calgary is not very large (300 to 400 people), Osadchey thinks it is inevitable that the communities will form closer ties.
“I think, overall, the message that Beth Tzedec is sponsoring a family is very important, both for our members and for the community at large,” said the rabbi. “We are interested in this issue. We take it seriously. Jewish tradition calls on us to help refugees.”
Last month, leaders of Beth Tzedec had brunch with the refugee family’s Calgary relatives to learn more about them before they arrive in two or three months. It may take less time than that, depending on various factors.
“Still, we are pretty far along,” said Osadchey. “We have most of the financial commitment taken care of. It’s being underwritten primarily by one family, which is the original person I was speaking with who sort of launched the idea.”
But others in the congregation have also volunteered. For example, members of the congregation held a Chanukah party where, instead of giving gifts, they asked attendees to donate toward the sponsorship efforts. They raised $1,000.
The financial need for hosting a family of five is estimated by the federal government at $32,000, but Osadchey has been working with congregants, one of whom may be able to offer housing, which will substantially lessen this estimate.
“The $32,000 has already been raised, but we anticipate there will be other costs once they get here,” said Osadchey.
While the congregation is considering hosting more families in the future, they have decided to take it one family at a time, as this is a very new process for them.
“Somebody asked about that, and I said, ‘Go with the first family and see what the experience is like and, if we can continue to help and have support, we will do that,’” said Osadchey. “But, I anticipate it will be a very wonderful experience, both for the congregation and for the family.”
The response from the congregation has been overwhelmingly positive, and a number of prominent people have stepped forward and expressed their pride in the synagogue doing this. And the response has spilled over to Temple B’nai Tikva, which has spoken to Osadchey.
“They contacted us, but we already had the funding in place and were down the road in the process, so it wasn’t so critical that we had a partner,” he said. “We encouraged them to reach out and find someone else who might benefit from their help.”
Temple B’nai Tikva has set up a refugee assistance committee, which met last month. Committee representative Cynthia Simmons said that they have met with a couple of churches, and “we know we want to do something, but the exact nature of that something remains to be determined.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.