How One Woman Saved Syrian Jews

My old friend Allen Feld’s mother, Judy Feld Carr, is profiled in today’s Jerusalem Post:

In 1972, Toronto high school music teacher Judy Feld Carr came across a news article in The Jerusalem Post that told of the tragic deaths of 12 young Syrian Jewish men who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee Syria across the Turkish border.

"I saw the article and I couldn’t get over it," Carr recalled last week in a phone interview with the Post 34 years after that fateful publication. The daughter of an independent-minded fur trader from Sudbury, Ontario, she could not sit helpless while Syria’s Jewish community suffered. "So my late husband and I decided we had to do something about it." And she did. Spectacularly. Over the next 28 years, Carr masterminded from her Toronto home an international smuggling operation, complete with elaborate secret codes, meetings overseas with foreign agents and extensive bribes for Syrian officials, which rescued 3,228 Jews from persecution.…

Judy Feld Carr is a very special, kind person. She should be a household name. That she is not says much for what the Jewish community values – and what it does not.

How I saved Syria’s Jews
Haviv Rettig, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 23, 2006

In 1972, Toronto high school music teacher Judy Feld Carr came across a news article in The Jerusalem Post that told of the tragic deaths of 12 young Syrian Jewish men who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee Syria across the Turkish border.

"I saw the article and I couldn’t get over it," Carr recalled last week in a phone interview with the Post 34 years after that fateful publication. The daughter of an independent-minded fur trader from Sudbury, Ontario, she could not sit helpless while Syria’s Jewish community suffered. "So my late husband and I decided we had to do something about it." And she did. Spectacularly. Over the next 28 years, Carr masterminded from her Toronto home an international smuggling operation, complete with elaborate secret codes, meetings overseas with foreign agents and extensive bribes for Syrian officials, which rescued 3,228 Jews from persecution.

Much of Carr’s work remains secret. "Even today, more is hidden than known, and we still cannot expose in detail many of [Carr’s] rescues," noted a recent article in IICC Magazine, the journal of the Israeli Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. Edited by former senior IDF intelligence officer Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ephraim Lapid, IICC Magazine quoted "foreign sources, who revealed that Carr was involved in the creation of a secret and secure information network with extensive connections," both with "official and secret sources in Israel and private ones in America."

The story began as a local philanthropic initiative. Distraught over the news article, Carr and her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, organized lectures and a study day on Syrian Jewry. The participants learned of the persecution of Syrian Jews at the hands of the local Arabs and the regime, some of which continues to this day. They learned of the 1947 pogroms in which Arab mobs smashed homes and synagogues in the 2,500-year-old Jewish community of Aleppo; of laws from the 1940’s barring Jews from purchasing land; of the Muhabarat (secret police) surveillance of Damascus’s Jewish quarter; of the arrest and reported torture of Jews suspected of attempting to leave the country; and of the fact (recently cited in a 2001 US State Department human rights report) that Jews are the only minority in Syria whose religion is denoted in their passports and identity cards.

But, once they understood the problem, "we didn’t know what to do," Carr said. "So we decided to do what we knew best from [campaigning for] Russian Jewry. We decided to call Syria." It took almost three weeks ("We were about to give up.") and the help of a Moroccan Jewish phone operator in Montreal to finally get a phone call through to Syria. "The Syrians would shut the line to Canada as soon as we asked for a Jew," Carr recalled.

She finally reached the home of a Jewish woman who was on the payroll of the Muhabarat. Luckily, the woman’s husband was the only one home at the time, and though the call from Canada "almost gave him a heart attack," he divulged the name and address of Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, who would become the Chief Rabbi of Syria.

Following that initial gambit, Carr and her husband "knew we couldn’t call again, and it wasn’t a good idea to write a letter. So we came up with an idea to send a telegram in French [which is widely spoken in Syria] asking if Rabbi Hamra needed religious books. We prepaid the answer." Ten days later came the response, a veritable shopping list of Jewish books. And so began Carr’s communication with the Syrian Jewish community.

Though her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 1973, leaving her alone with three children, Carr maintained and strengthened her fragile contact with Syria’s Jews. When, in 1977, she married Donald Carr, he became her confidant and supporter, and one of only a handful of people around the world who knew about her clandestine activities.

Toronto’s Beth Tzedec synagogue, the largest in Canada, established the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, and Carr used donations to this fund to finance her work. "We had no overhead, no executive directors, no salaries. We didn’t have dinners, cocktail parties, fundraising," she recalled. "We only printed thank-you cards." Even so, she said, she received quiet financial help from Jews throughout North America. "It spread by word of mouth across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Then there was a fund in Baltimore that sent their money," she said.

At its outset, the Beth Tzedec fund "was only a link to the rabbi in Damascus, and later on to rabbis in Allepo and Kamashili," the only three towns in Syria where Jews were legally permitted to reside – and even then restricted to ghettos, forbidden to own cars or to travel. "The rabbis wanted books, tefillin (phylacteries), tallisim (prayer shawls)," Carr related.

Soon, the telegrams and Judaica shipments became a code.

"I started inserting words into the telegrams, like ‘who’s in prison?’" she related. "Then the rabbi would answer with a name, [hidden] inside my address."

In order to verify that the rabbi had received the books, Carr would write one verse of psalms inside a book, and Rabbi Hamra would reply with the next one. Eventually, the verses became a way of discussing events, and Carr began to receive updates and news from the community. As the code developed it took on additional elements, including terms taken from Chinese cooking and alcoholic beverages. Carr herself was codenamed "Gin."

The operation was expanded to Aleppo when another Toronto woman, Hanna Cohen, whose brother was a rabbi in Aleppo, decided to visit him, "taking her life into her hands." Carr recalled that Cohen was arrested and interrogated, but then returned to Canada. She carried with her, hidden in her clothing, a letter for Carr "from the rabbis in Aleppo begging for books and begging to get out of Syria."

And so, the network grew steadily. Through Syrian Jews who had escaped to Canada on their own, Carr slowly developed a network of contacts in and outside Syria. She communicated with Syrian government functionaries, judges and even Muhabarat officers, all of whom were brought together by the knowledge that there was money to be made in "selling Jews" to Judy Carr.

She used this network to "to ransom the [Jews] and to pay off people on the escape route and negotiate prices." She funneled bribe money to Syrian officials through third parties and negotiated the Jews’ release personally. Over time, with the cooperation of Israel’s secret services, Carr had operatives moving in and out of Syria as well as ready in Turkey and Lebanon to collect escaping Jews and ferry them safely to Israel or elsewhere.

One of Carr’s most interesting stories concerns not Jews, but an ancient and priceless Keter, or Bible manuscript. The Damascus Keter, produced in Burgos in northwestern Spain in 1260 and taken to Muslim lands by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, was smuggled out of Syria by one of Carr’s agents, hidden in stacks of documents. Today it resides in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem.

All the time that Carr worked covertly to rescue Syrian Jews, she publicly lobbied Canadian officials, diplomats and Jewish organizations, never revealing her activities. All of them underestimated the woman with whom they were dealing, considering her an amateur activist tackling issues beyond her ken.

"I never had any publicity. It had to be a totally secret operation," she said. "The world media doesn’t look at Canada except for the weather report, so no one knew what I was doing." That changed in the late 1990’s.

In 1999, University of Toronto historian Harold Troper turned Carr’s story into a book, The Ransomed of God: The Remarkable Story of One Woman’s Role in the Rescue of Syrian Jews. In May 2001, she was invested into the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor. Her story was "one of international drama and suspense," according to the office of Canada’s Governor General, which awarded her the honor and praised her for her "selfless concern for others." She has also been recognized, albeit less prestigiously, in the Jewish world. The late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin thanked her for her "hard and dangerous work" in a 1995 letter, adding that Israel and Syrian Jews "will never be able to reward you as you deserve." She is also the recipient of the Simon Wiesenthal Award for Tolerance, Justice and Human Rights.

But Carr, now a grandmother of 13, shies away from the publicity. Most of those she rescued don’t know the identity of the person who, from far-away Toronto, cleared their path to freedom.

"I’ve been to a few Syrian weddings and bar mitzvahs in Israel and Brooklyn," she said with embarrassment. "I don’t like the kavod [honor], because they make me go under the hupa (wedding canopy), and then they see who I was and that’s not necessary. It’s not necessary." Carr remains in touch with the rabbis of the communities, and with those she rescued from inside Syrian prisons and helped to flee to North and South America and Israel.

"I gave a speech in Sao Paulo [Brazil] before Rosh Hashanah," she related, "and people there stood up and said, ‘Judy, don’t you know me? You took me out on the escape route.’" One of them was a Sephardi rabbi who carried with him a prayer book inscribed with Carr’s handwriting.

"He apologized because he knew my rules [forbidding carrying religiously identifiable objects on the escape route]," she said with pride, "but he said he put it in his pocket when he left, and it has brought him good luck."

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18 Comments

Filed under Jewish Leadership

18 responses to “How One Woman Saved Syrian Jews

  1. Anonymous Coward

    For what it’s worth, the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn have a tremendous hatred for converts to Judaism.

  2. Isa

    “””For what it’s worth, the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn have a tremendous hatred for converts to Judaism.”””
    It is not hate but rather they do not recognize converts. It has more to do with a Syrian Jew marrying a convert that is forbidden. From what I read this was decreed in 1937. A conversion mill was running at the time.

  3. Larry S.

    “From what I read this was decreed in 1937. A conversion mill was running at the time.”
    says Isa
    I must say, it’s a rather stupid and vile decree from uneducated rabbis and contrary to (many) Torah decrees, indeed a blatant distortion of coomandements both de oraisso and de rabbonan. (ein boor yerei chet, velo am haoretz chossid).
    This excuse of “conversion mill” does not hold. If there is any truth in it at all, the object of any action should have been limited to the mill, not the entire body of mitzvos to love, welcome and accept geirim.
    Yittomu chattoeem min haaretz, wurshoeem od einom.

  4. Larry S.

    I must add, that the anti geirus decree has nothing to do with the rescued Jews of Syria, nor with the zchus of Mrs Judy as she is often fondly reffered to.
    The failure is that of their more than a tad askew rabbinic leadership.

  5. glenn

    Re your post about Judy Carr:

    The Jewish Press had a lengthy piece on her by Steven Plaut about seven or eight weeks ago. Link:
    http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/19793/The_Harriet_Tubman_of_Syrian_Jewry.html

  6. I posted about her unbelievable work as part of my Heroine of the Day series.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    It is not hate but rather they do not recognize converts.

    Sorry, but that is hate. Even Jews of Syrian extraction are commanded to love converts to Judaism.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    I must add, that the anti geirus decree has nothing to do with the rescued Jews of Syria, nor with the zchus of Mrs Judy as she is often fondly reffered to.

    Some of the rescued Syrians ended up in Brooklyn. I wonder if they “love” gerim the same way the lifelong residents of Brooklyn do.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    According to this Wikipedia entry, the lovely communities of Buenos Aires and Brooklyn renew the ban periodically:


    Every twenty years or so, the edict is reaffirmed by all leaders and rabbis of the community, often with extra clauses. A full list is as follows:

    * Buenos Aires, 1927 (R. David Setton)
    * New York, 1935 (R. Jacob Kassin)
    * New York, 1946 “Clarification”
    * New York, 1972 “Affirmation”
    * New York, 1984 “Reaffirmation”
    * New York, 2006 “Reaffirmation”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Jews

    /Evidently the Syrian Torah has 612 mitzvos
    //What a screwed-up religion

  10. Isa

    Well thank you ‘Anonymous Coward’
    Hmmm even Syrian Arabs are taught to hold other Arabs at arms length.
    BTW Shymara in that referenced article in Wikipedia, my name is listed as a Syrian name, har har har

  11. anon

    Abolishing a mitzvah d’oraysah in order to preserve a culture steeped in superstition just might represent the epitome of Syrian Jewish values. The ignorance of the rabbis who initially signed this edict and the continued am haratzes of the rabbis who allow it to continue speak volumes of the intellectual capacity of this group.

  12. Anonymous

    The edict of the syrian edict wasn’t taken likely. An entire book called diber shaul was printed in 1927 was printed about it. The majority of the book is responsa back and forth with many poskim of the time. Both the Sefardic and Ashkenazik batei dinim of jerusalem among others, who agreed with it. There is precedense for such a ban. King David had a similar ban. The idea of the ban is not to hate, rather to protect a community from intergrating. It is not a learned community nor a very religius one, and its rabbis attempted to stop them from intermarrying with their Italian neighbors in Bensonhurst.

  13. Larry S.

    “King David had a similar ban.”
    oh! yea! like the beit din of shmuel haramati. his ban didn’t seem to have worked too long. was batsheva jewish by birth? her husband uriya was a hitti.
    the ban-if it ever existed- was for sure
    totally ignored by shelomo. it didn’t work!

    “The idea of the ban is not to hate, rather to protect a community from intergrating.”
    sure, tha’s very noble to some, but that’s o’ver (trespassing) on a multitude of aveirot both de-oraita and derabbanan.
    if a mitzva’s importance is expressed by how often it’s mentioned, elaborated upon and repeated in the torah , it would seem that decent treatment of converts, surpasses shabbat in importance.

    “….and its rabbis attempted to stop them from intermarrying with their Italian neighbors in Bensonhurst.”
    I think this farcical and sinful “attempt” is taking some time. don’t you think?
    an attempt? that is reconfirmed and repeated every few years? was the torah kidding?
    it gets so bad that some of the signatories of (for sure the one signed in the 80’s) are lay leaders mechallelei shabbat befarhessia.
    you seem to be acquainted with them, check the list.
    shame on them and on their rabbis!

  14. frummeyid

    “Judy Feld Carr is a very special, kind person. She should be a household name. That she is not says much for what the Jewish community values – and what it does not.”

    Sorry, I have to call you on that. Any educated Canadian Jew knows Judy Feld Carr’s name. That is absolute fact. Perhaps you mean that every person in New York should know her name. But that is a bit absurd. Everyone knows Raould Wallenberg’s name, but not everyone knows the name of every other diplomat who helped Jews escape the Holocaust. It simply doesn’t follow that not being aware of every great person indicates a lack of values.

  15. Isa

    I will offer a ‘translation’ so that this convert ban may be ‘understandable’ [but of course not justified]
    In a Modern Orthodox community everybody is observant one way or another. Even somebody who says that they are ‘old time Conservative’
    When was the last time you saw someone drive to shul on Shabbat that BELONGED to a MO community?? How about a Heredim community?? HA!
    In the Syrian community this is not the case, there might be ‘shabbos goyim’, treif eaters even non believers and the like, that belong to the Syrian community. Sooo the Syrian rabbis say to the non observant. Do not think that you can marry a non-Jew and pay ‘Orthodox’ rabbis to convert her- we don’t care- we don’t care how good the converting rabbis are! We won’t accept her and you will be kicked out of the community-furthermore your children will be kicked out too! There will be NO avenue that you can think of that will make us change our mind- Oh yes- when you die you do not get buried amoungst us either!!! All this BECAUSE the non-observant are in the Syrian community. Something that does not happen in the Askenazi Orthodox community.
    BTW the Lebanese community has also non-observant in their community too. But they do not have the convert ban.

  16. frummeyid –

    I’d bet you that fewer than 1% of American Jews know who she is. Further, I’d make that same bet about Israelis, European Jews, South American Jews, etc. JFC is not a Jewish defense org with a PR staff and constant fundraising mailings. She is not a self promoter. She merely saved lives, something too insignificant for the ADL, etc., to note.

  17. Allepo guy

    Syrian Jews accept conversion for adoption and there are no Rabbis in the community that object to that.Visitors to our shuls are usually treated very nicely and are often given alliya. The only question they would ever be asked is are they Cohen, Levy or Israel. Ger tzedeks have been given alliyahs.
    We are however machmeer(stringent) on someone converting for the purpose of marriage.According to halacha if there is another motive for the conversion, it is not permissible.When the issue of conversion comes up in my community it is always regarding someone wishing to marry a non-Jew.
    It appears to me that in the rest of the Orthodox world the Rabbis are more lenient regarding conversion for the purpose of marrriage. I’m sure they have good reason to take a lenient position on this issue and they have to do what they believe is right for their communities.

    Why Ashkenazic and even some Sephardic communities have been lenient on conversion for the purpose of marriage I do not know. But this is probably what brought on the conversion ban in my community.If there was no ban the guy would take the girl to an Ashkenazic Rabbi who would give her a conversion that would be completely legitimate according to the Ashkenazim,thereby bypassing our tradition of being stringent on this issue.If that couple chose to live in a different community they would have no problem. If they chose to live in my community they would have basically nulified our Rabbis’stringent stance on conversion for the purpose of marriage.There lies the problem.

  18. Benei Brak אברך

    As someone who’s married to a Geirat Zedek, is NOT Syrian, and who was a regular and honorable member of a “high end” Syrian community, I can attest that when it was found that I am married to a Geira [through an innocent and true answer of the shul membership form] the treatment by the “Rabbi” [punk really, and he’s Morrocan by origin–trying to “outSyrian the Syrians] changed from giving me uninvited back rubs on occasion to outright animosity and blatant hatred. Similar behavior was displayed by others who were privy to this info.
    I must mention that not all Syrian rabbis share this view of converts. A real Hacham actually supported me and my family with deep conviction and even tried to take the issue up with R’ Kassin, without tangible results.
    Bottom line, why should outsiders of the Syrian community receive the cold shoulder and second class treatment, and even outright hatred when attending Syrian shuls??
    Since when is mitzva de’orita {torah decree} of Ahavat Chinam and Ahavata et Hager overruled by a late Acharonim of Acharonim rabbi?
    I write this with pain, because I deeply admire the Syrian community’s positive accomplishments. However, they are deeply marred by this baseless hatred, a prime reason for the destruction of the Temple and current Galut [exile]. This stain weighs heavily on the community. Take care of it. NOW.

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