Syrian refugees get quiet support


As Jewish organizations trumpeted their positions on an American strike on Syria, a quieter Jewish response to the civil war in that country has gotten underway — an effort to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan.

The work of raising funds — $344,000 so far — is being done by the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a group composed of 16 mainstream organizations, including the ADL, American Jewish Committee and bodies belonging to the Reform and Conservative religious movements.

Donations are channeled to relief agencies working in Jordan to supply food, medicine, clothing and resettlement support to refugees, according to Michael Geller, spokesman for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a lead organization in the coalition.

Georgette Bennett, president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, started the drive and has been the largest single donor. She followed an initial $100,000 gift with a two-to-one challenge grant of $50,000. (The total amount of money raised includes Bennett’s $50,000 challenge. The final results of the challenge were not available at press time.)

An estimated 500,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan during the two-year civil war and their growing numbers are expected to constitute 20 percent of Jordan’s population by the end of the year, Bennett said.

Jewish support for crises in countries such as Haiti, Japan and Sudan “have been no-brainers,” she said. “But should we be helping Syrians? Many Jews would ask, ‘Why are we helping people who want to kill us?’ ”

She said the answer can be found in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”

“These are people escaping an enemy state, and they are suffering,” she added.

There is also a geopolitical reason for action, she said. The influx of refugees is destabilizing Jordan. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, is an American ally and “is important diplomatically in the region. A destabilized Jordan is not good for the region and not good for the United States.”

To keep its work focused, the coalition decided not to expand into other countries, such as Turkey, she said. Grants have gone to Jordanian Red Crescent, Israeli Flying Aid, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and World Jewish Relief. These agencies are required to be transparent and to report back to the coalition about how the money is used, Bennett said.

Though they constitute some of the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish organizations, most of the 16 groups in the coalition have done little to help the cause. They have not used the mechanisms they usually employ to rally Jewish support or raise money — mass emails and press releases, to name just a couple — even as many of them posted conspicuous “calls to action” to rally support for a U.S. military strike against the Assad regime.

Aside from the contributions by Bennett and the JDC, the coalition has gotten $25,000 each from two anonymous donors, $75,000 from the California-based Leichtag Foundation and about $20,000 from grassroots donors.

Members of the coalition — itself a subgroup of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief — include the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Union for Reform Judaism and its affiliated Religious Action Center; the Jewish Federations of North America; Ve’ahavta, a Canadian group dedicated to tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world; the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement; Mazon, the Jewish hunger relief organization; HIAS; the U.K.-based World Jewish Relief; World ORT; the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; the World Jewish Congress; the American Jewish Committee; and the JDC.

JTA contributed to this article.

[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel

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