Judy Feld Carr
Nothing in Judy Feld Carr’s background would suggest that this Canadian woman would rescue more than three thousand five hundred Syrian Jews between 1975 and 2000. She was born in Montreal, Quebec on December 26, 1938. She and her younger brother Alexander (1942–1999) were raised in the small northern Ontario mining town of Sudbury where Judy’s Russian-born father, Jack Lev (1898–1983), was a fur trader and leader of Sudbury’s tiny Jewish community. Judy’s mother, Sarah (née Rivers, b. Brooklyn 1917, d. 1986), managed the family home. After Judy finished high school in 1957, she left Sudbury to study music education at the University of Toronto, where she gained both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music education and musicology. She also became a specialist in instrumental and vocal music at the university’s Ontario College of Education. In 1960 she married a young physician, Ronald Feld (1933–1973). They had three children: Alan Harold (b. 1961), Gary Alexander (b. 1965), and Elizabeth Frances (b. 1969).
In the late 1960s Judy and her husband were swept up in the Soviet Jewry campaign but soon refocused on the plight of Jews in Syria. Convinced that the approximately six thousand Jews of Syria needed strong western advocates, the couple organized a Syrian Jewish support committee. With a small group of Toronto activists, they publicized the desperation of Syria Jews threatened by a constant reality of extortion, imprisonment without trial and torture. Judy and her husband also sought ways to let Syrian Jews know they were not forgotten. Their committee began mailing packages of religious articles and books to Syria, items which the Syrian authorities allowed to be delivered. In the process, the Felds made covert contact with several Syrian Jewish leaders, first in Damascus and later in Aleppo. Guarded and coded communication began, as did the secret transfer of money to support individual Syrian Jews in distress.
When Ronald died suddenly in 1973, friends organized a charitable fund in his memory at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec to support the Syrian work. In 1977 this work took a sharp turn. Judy, remarried to prominent Toronto lawyer and Jewish leader Donald Carr (b. 1928) and mothering a blended family with six children, was approached with the idea of bringing an elderly and sick Aleppo rabbi to Toronto for cancer treatment. The idea seemed impossible. Syrian authorities generally refused to allow the departure of Jews but Judy, intrigued by the possibility of actually removing a Jew from Syria, accepted the challenge. She quickly learned that the key to getting anything done in Syria was money. If enough money greased the right palms it was even possible to buy Jews out of Syria. With money quietly raised in Toronto for bribes and airline tickets, Judy eventually bought the rabbi out of Syria.
Before long, Judy was secretly negotiating with Syrian officials, even Syrian secret police agents, for the removal of more and more individual Jews. With every successful rescue, Judy was approached with more names of Jews desperate to leave. With each new name she began the long and sometimes cumbersome rescue process. It was not easy. Each case was unique. Since Syrians would only rarely permit an entire family to leave together, Judy bargained for each family member in turn. And costs varied; an old man generally cost less than a young and single woman, a little boy more than a little girl. How much for a pregnant woman?
In addition to the bribes, Syrians also demanded an excuse for granting Jews permission to leave. Judy was inventive. Some, like the elderly rabbi, were said to be leaving for medical treatment. Some left as caregivers for the sick, others for business or to visit family who had left Syria in the 1940s and 1950s before Syria’s doors were sealed to Jewish exit. Officially, each Jew allowed out posted money as a guarantee of his or her return to Syria but the Syrian authorities who took bribes knew full well none would return. Most of those whom Feld Carr bought out of Syria were first transported to New York where some were reunited with family. Others stayed in New York only long enough to camouflage a departure for Israel where they were quietly resettled in spite of warnings by Syrian officials that any contact with Israel would mean the punishment of family members remaining in Syria.
In some instances it was imperative that an individual or even an entire family in trouble with the authorities be removed from Syria quickly. In these cases no amount of bribe money could convince Syrian officials to issue an exit visa. As a last hope, Feld Carr entered the murky world of smuggling. At great cost and personal risk, she engaged shady individuals who, for a price, illegally smuggled people and goods across the heavily-guarded Syrian border with Turkey. Once in Turkey those whom Feld Carr paid to smuggle out were quietly moved on to Israel.
In the early 1990s hopes for a comprehensive peace, including an American-brokered peace between Israel and Syria, were high. In order to remove barriers to bilateral talks, Syria officially lifted most barriers to Jewish departures. However, officials responsible for issuing passports and exit visas still demanded a handsome fee for their services. Unsure that the Syrian door would remain open, Judy threw all her energy and financial resources into removing the remaining Jews from Syria as quickly as possible. Most left. Today there are virtually no Jews remaining in Syria.
Her work done, Feld Carr emerged from the shadows to overdue public recognition. Along with honorary degrees and accolades from Jewish and Israeli organizations, she was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest award Canada can give a citizen, in 2001. She was also honored in 1995 by Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. “Very few people, if any,” wrote Rabin, “have contributed as greatly as you have.” Perhaps most important to her was an honor bestowed by Syrian Jewish leaders who recalled it was “Judy Feld Carr who arose when it was ‘still night’ and woke up the world to the plight of our brethren in Syria.”
Saul Hayes Human Rights Award, Canadian Jewish Congress, 1995; Humanitarian Award of Merit, University of Haifa, 1996; Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, Laurentian University, Ontario, 2000; Medal of Valor, Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Los Angeles, 2001; Abraham Sachar Medal, Woman of the Year. Brandeis University, 2002; Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 2002.
Troper, Harold. The Ransomed of God: The Remarkable Story of One Woman’s Role in the Rescue of Syrian Jews. Toronto: 1999.
A detailed and thoroughly documented scholarly study based on primary archival research in numerous manuscript collections and more than forty interviews with individuals directly involved with the story.