Saviour of Syrian Jews awarded President’s medal

Israel’s President Peres honours Toronto’s Judy Feld Carr (Photo: Mark Neiman/GPO)

Judy Feld Carr, the Canadian mother credited with helping Jews escape Syria in the 1990s, was finally granted the recognition she deserves this week, the Jerusalem Post reports. She was awarded Israel’s Presidential medal.

Feld Carr – a musicologist, mother of six and grandmother of 13 who lives most of the year in Toronto – says she secretly and discreetly used money and connections to help Jews get out of Syria.

On Monday, she was given the Presidential Award of Distinction by Shimon Peres in recognition of her heroic role in the rescue of Syrian Jewry. Peres, who had phoned her in Toronto in February to inform her of her award, praised her “courageous action and exceptional contribution to the Jewish people.”

In an interview at the Jerusalem home in which she and her lawyer husband, Donald Carr, often spend part of their summers, Feld Carr smiles when asked why she was given the prize.

“I was awarded it because I secretly took out three-quarters of the Syrian Jewish community by escape routes and by ransom, and it was the biggest secret in the Jewish world,” she tells The Jerusalem Post. “Nobody, but I mean nobody, knew how I was doing it.”

Based in Toronto, she devoted herself to working with smugglers and bribing government officials to save Jews from the hostile Syrian regime, methodically keeping files on each one of them.

“I started a communication with Syria at the end of 1972. I took my first person out of Syria by ransom – a rabbi from Aleppo – in 1977; I finished the morning of September 11, 2001, an hour before the Trade Center tragedy happened,” she explains, matterof- factly.

“I was involved with [rescuing] 3,228 Jews out of a population of 4,500 when I started. Slowly, slowly, slowly, with a great deal of difficulty; it was not an easy thing to do, and I am not from Syria – I am an Ashkenazi from northern Canada originally – I figured out the system.”

Her interest in Syria started when she and her first husband, Rubin Feld, clandestinely started sending “religious books” to the country from Canada, and she was later approached by a couple of Syrian Jews who came to Toronto to visit her.

She makes a point of expressing her gratitude to her home country of Canada for enabling her to conduct her rescue operation there without word getting out to the rest of the world.

“Canada is another best-kept secret. I could do things quietly in Canada and not be seen by the press or the media,” she says, emphatically. “A lot of my neshama [soul] has been in this. I did this quietly for 28 years, and I raised all the money quietly – no dinners, no parties, no fund-raising. All the money was raised by my best friend and a few other people on a committee that I had in Toronto and me.

“It was all by word of mouth, and the money went into a fund in my synagogue, Beth Tzedec Congregation. The fund was named in memory of my late husband who died in 1973 of a heart attack, after a major threat against my life.”

Asked how she pulled it off, Feld Carr still cannot tell the whole story, which apparently involved paying smugglers to take Jews through other Muslim countries, or paying for their release and flying them to the United States. But, she stresses, it was extremely tough.

“There’s no one answer. Each person was done totally differently. One thing you have to understand right up front, I never made a contact to get anybody out of Syria and that’s the most important thing,” she says. “Syrian Jews had tried every single way they could think of to get out; their own ransoming, other escapes, people were caught, people were sent to prison. They had to find me; I was their last resort out of the country. They found me through a relative, a brother or a sister, or someone in Israel.”

Her face lights up as she gives an example: “As a matter of fact, one of the presidents of Israel was approached by a young man in the Israel Air Force who who came to him to say, ‘Please, I have a family in Syria, you have to get them out.’ And the president’s secretary called me in Toronto. That’s how I came to get his family out, part as a result of an escape and part by ransoming. “It was the most difficult thing. First they had to find me. They never saw me; I was the voice on the telephone, and they had to trust what I was going to do.”

When confronted with the current bloodshed in Syria, she expresses her relief that the majority of Jews are now out of the country, living mostly in the US, South America and Israel: “There’s certainly a civil war [in Syria], and as the so-called rebellious side gets more and more arms, there are going to be more and more murders,” she predicts. “I know what hell Syrian Jews went through. I can say to you, thank goodness there are only 17 Jews left there, all older people who did not want to leave. I’d hate to think what would happen from either side if there were Jews left in Syria.”

Feld Carr has been awarded a number of top honors over recent years, including an appointment as a member of the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.

In 1995, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was the first to acknowledge her “extraordinary work,” in a letter which now hangs on her wall: “Now that for all practical purposes, the entire Syrian Jewish community has left Syria, the time for thanks is here – first and foremost to you,” Rabin wrote.

A book called The Rescuer by Canadian Jewish historian Harold Troper was written in 2007 about “the amazing, true story of how one woman helped save the Jews of Syria.”

Israel Broadcasting Authority Channel 1’s made a documentary about her work titled Miss Judy, which was shown at the Toronto Film Festival.
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