Refugee Shabbat 2024

For 100 years, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services has helped newcomers to Canada, guided by the commandment to “love the stranger among you, because you were once strangers in Egypt” (Leviticus, 19:34).  JIAS Toronto is proud to partner with our American counterpart HIAS for Refugee Shabbat, an international Shabbat experience in support of refugees, February 3-4.

Refugee Shabbat is an opportunity for Jewish congregations,community groups & individuals across Canada and around the world to recognize these efforts, share stories, reaffirm our commitment to refugees and to learn more about how we, as Jews and as Canadians, can make a difference for people seeking a safe haven in Canada.  

Participation in Refugee Shabbat can be as simple as a discussion around a Shabbat table with family, inviting a guest speaker to synagogue services or a feature program, or sharing the work of your own sponsorship group, “Welcome Circle,” or social action committee with others in your network, congregation or community. 

**To speak to a JIAS representative about Refugee Shabbat programming, please email jewish@jiastoronto.org

A Worsening World Refugee Crisis

The numbers are staggering. Over 110 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes due to natural disasters, conflict, and persecution. Among them are nearly 40 million refugees living in temporary, transitory circumstances outside of their country of origin with no possibility of returning safely to their homes.  

In June of 2023, Canada’s population reached the historic milestone of 40 million people.  Tragically, there are as many refugees around the world, forced out of their countries as a result of persecution, violent conflict, and human rights violations.    

A Worsening World Refugee Crisis

The Canadian Response

Canada is a world leader in humanitarian resettlement, ranking in first among 26 countries in refugee resettlement.

The government also works in partnership with Canadian citizens and organizations to bring refugees to safety through Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSR), which accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s resettled refugees.

Private sponsorship offers hands-on, community-based support for refugees that has been shown to help refugees achieve slightly better outcomes and become better integrated into their communities than government-sponsored refugees. Canada’s PSR Program has become a model for other countries around the world. In the 40 years since the PSR program began, participants have demonstrated the generosity of spirit that helps define Canada to the world.

Learn more about JIAS’s refugee sponsorship support here.

JIAS Private Sponsorship Refugee Program

JIAS Private Sponsorship Refugee Program

In 2014, JIAS received Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) status from the Canadian government, allowing us to privately sponsor refugees. Today, JIAS remains the only Jewish agency in Canada with this status and works with dozens of community groups and individuals to privately sponsor refugees from around the world from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Rwanda and Vietnam. In the past 7 years, JIAS has supported over 850 refugees through the Private Sponsorship Program. To learn more about the Private Sponsorship of Refugee program, click here. 

Five Ways To Support Refugees

Five Ways To Support Refugees

  1. Share knowledge – Resettling refugees is a proud and important part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition and demonstrates our shared responsibility to people who are displaced and persecuted. However, there are a number of unfounded and negative myths that surround Canada’s refugee resettlement.  This Refugee Shabbat, commit to learning and sharing information from trusted sources. Many in our community are personally engaged in refugee sponsorship and resettlement. This Refugee Shabbat, share your experience and commitment to helping others – whether around your table, through an adult education program at your congregation, or by offering to give a D’var Torah. For JIAS staff support, email jewish@jiastoronto.org.
  1. Have a difficult conversation – Commit to having at least one conversation with someone who has expressed doubt about welcoming refugees to Canada. This Refugee Shabbat, be proud of your commitment to supporting refugees. This is a helpful resource.
  1. Volunteer – Volunteer to support refugees and other vulnerable newcomers.  Research has shown that volunteers have a significant impact on refugee integration, acting as a key defense against social isolation and newcomer despair.  This Refugee Shabbat, consider signing up for these or other opportunities. 
  1. Provide financial support – This Refugee Shabbat, donate to help bring refugees to Canada and provide crucial supports to vulnerable newcomers as they settle and rebuild their lives. 
  1. Save a life – Canada’s Private Sponsorship Program has saved lives. This Refugee Shabbat, inquire if your synagogue or other groups in your community are sponsoring refugees and join their efforts. You can also create your own sponsorship group that can be supported by JIAS.

Questions & Answers

The Torah commands Jews at least 36 times to Welcome the Stranger. One commentary on this repetition suggests that even though it is our experience, even though we should know instinctively based on having been the stranger, it does not necessarily come naturally. We need reminding. The following are some examples from Shmot (Book of Exodus), Dvarim (Deuteronomy) and Vayikra:

(Leviticus): Exodus 22:20
(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19
(19) You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34
(34) The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.

The phrase “In our Midst” also relate to the current refugee crisis.

The Torah talks about the stranger “in our midst”.  While most of the world’s refugee are oceans apart from Canada, access to information about their struggles is within easy reach (“in our midst”). The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with one person forcibly displaced almost every two seconds because of conflict or persecution.

We honour our Jewish history and experience by upholding the Jewish value to “welcome the stranger.

Lessons from Parashat Yitro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

Why is the the parasha called Parashat Yitro?

The main topic of Parashat Yitro is the revelation at Mount Sinai – and yet the parasha is called Parashat Yitro, named for Moses’s father in Law, a non-Israelite Midianite priest. Why is this?

Yitro protects Moses and takes him in, seeing him not as a foreigner but as a human being.

Yitro, despite being the priest of an idolatrous religion, recognized all that G-d had done for Moses & the people of Israel. He has genuine interest in and respect for a people with beliefs different than his own.

Yitro offers Moses key advice in his leadership, helping him understand that he cannot effectively lead alone, but must recognize those among the people with attributes that make them worthy of leading, and create a hierarchy so that leadership is distributed and democratized. This concept is later reinforced by the giving of the commandments, which places responsibility on all people to be good and to provide an example for others. The fact that Yitro is the one to first point out the importance of sharing leadership responsibility is interesting because he is not an Israelite – and yet he offers counsel in the best interests of the Israelites. He feels a sense of responsibility towards others and just as we must show humanity in caring for others and their well-being.

A few resources that explore these concepts further:

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Yitro: Breaking Down Labels

Yitro: Leadership for the people

Parashat Yitro teaches about protecting those in need – even when we must sacrifice in order to do so.

We learn in Parashat Yitro about the names that Moses and Zipporah give their two sons:

וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ׃ וְאֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נׇכְרִיָּֽה׃ וְשֵׁ֥ם הָאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱלֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה׃

Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, God’s people, how יהוה had brought Israel out from Egypt. So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father’s [house] was my help, delivering me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

In naming their son Gershom, i.e. “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” the importance of this experience, the centrality of it, is emphasized. But Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land is not actually reflective of the broader Jewish experience, as he had a life of privilege. However, he was saved and protected more than once by people willing to risk their own position to help him. First, Pharoah’s daughter and later, Yitro. These were, in some sense, the first Righteous Gentiles who put their own status or safety at risk to help an Israelite who was a stranger in a strange land. In naming his son Gershom, Moses emphasizes the weight of this experience. We must learn from this to be righteous and protect those in need.

Listen to Rabbi Michal Knopf discuss how this parasha emphasizes our responsibility to care for immigrants and refugees here.

The Israelites are fundamentally a refugee people who believe in a refugee G-d.

In Parashat Yitro, the Israelites experience the holiest moment in Jewish history – the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. Rabbi David J. Fine writes about how this central experience happens to when the Jewish people are a refugees: “The monument of their founding moment is a text, not a place. […]Parashat Yitro situates the essence of Jewishness in a diaspora context where home and hearth are moving targets. […] The wandering Jews took the Torah wherever they went.” He takes this even further. Characterizing G-d as a refugee: “God’s sovereignty is all-powerful because it can survive displacement and rejection. So also is the strength and dignity of the refugee.” Read Rabbi Fine’s full article on G-d as a refugee here. 

This reading underscores the refugee experience as core to Jewish peoplehood. Indeed, we are reminded again and again throughout the Torah that we were strangers in a strange land and that we are commanded to welcome, honour, and love the stranger.

Government and privately sponsored refugees coming to Canada from overseas undergo a multi-layered screening before arrival, including identity confirmation, health screenings, and rigorous security checks.

Refugees are forced to flee their homes while economic immigrants have the ability to choose where and when to move. Canada recognizes this by having separate programs for refugees and economic immigrants. The number of newcomers that Canada accepts from one group does not affect the other.

Immigrants stimulate the economy and contribute to building Canada into a prosperous country for all. They also help to maintain a stable economy in the face of declining birth rates and an aging labour force.

The cost of healthcare for refugees and refugee claimants, who are typically younger in age, is only a fraction of that of other Canadians.

Refugees come to Canada in a variety of different ways. Privately sponsored refugees are financially supported by the sponsoring citizens and are not eligible for any social assistance during their first year in Canada. Government-sponsored refugees receive minimal financial support from the federal government for a limited time to meet basic food and shelter costs. Refugee claimants in Canada receive Interim Federal Health, limited legal aid and in some provinces social assistance.