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Syria’s Jews, Past and Present

A look at Syria of today and Aleppo of old

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Old Aleppo Citadel(Wikipedia)

The Times of Israel recently ran a profile of Judy Feld Carr, who spent much of the last 30 years helping to smuggle Syrian Jews out of the increasingly dangerous country. Her hard work paid off and more than 3,000 Jewish Syrians are now away from what would be a very precarious place amid Syria’s ongoing civil war.

In the 1970s, when Feld Carr started her covert escape operation, some 4,600 Jews still lived in Syria, she says. Bribing Syrian officials, including senior members of the country’s intelligence community, she was able to arrange to smuggle out exactly 3,228 Jews. “One at a time.”

The unlikely saga of a protracted covert rescue operation led by an Ashkenazi musicologist who grew up in Sudbury, northern Canada, began when she and her late husband first learned about the plight of Syrian Jewry. The issue wasn’t very much in vogue in the early-to-mid-1970s, as most Jewish activists were focused on demanding freedom for their brethren in the Soviet Union.

After an initial phone calls to a synagogue in Damascus, she and her late husband started sending packages with religious items to the local Jewish communities. After a while, she started communicating via these packages, hiding coded messages in them.

In 1975, an Aleppo-born Jew living in Toronto went to visit her brother, who was still living in Aleppo. She was imprisoned there but made it out and returned to Canada. “She brought me, tucked into her underwear, a letter,” Feld Carr recalls. “It’s a letter that you only see during the times of the Holocaust. It was a letter written by three rabbis in Aleppo, saying something to the effect that: ‘Our children are your children. Get us out of here!’”

Today, Joseph Dana has written a story for Tablet about a Syrian community from Aleppo, now living in Israel, watching from afar as the Syrian civil war busts in chaff what once was their city.

Whichever side one falls on politically, it is clear that, for Jews, Aleppo was lost in 1948. The recent destruction of the city’s ancient monuments is merely a reminder of what had already been lost. While the Aleppine community in Israel is not nearly as numerous or powerful as their brethren in Brooklyn—the largest Aleppine Jewish community in the world, covered widely for their financial success and excess—their proximity to Syria and relationship with Jews from other Arab countries give the events in their lost city a more immediate feel.

Like for the Aleppine community in Brooklyn, the idea of Aleppo lives on in schools and synagogues in the exile community in Israel. During our conversation, Assis relayed stories of his adolescence moving around the Middle East. “When I arrived in Beirut and Istanbul, I found myself far more learned than any other kid my age,” he said. “We had a very strong Jewish education, we used to read the Bible and translate it on the spot to the astonishment of our teachers.”

Related: Jewish Aleppo, Lost Forever [Tablet Magazine]
‘Thank God, There Are Almost No Jews in Syria Now’ [Times of Israel]

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Syria’s Jews, Past and Present

A look at Syria of today and Aleppo of old

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