As Jews around the world celebrate Chanukah, they also remember the story of Yehudit (Judith), the brave Jewish woman who contributed significantly to leading the Israelites to victory by killing off Holofernes of Assyria around the second century BCE. However, thousands of years later, Jews should also remember another brave contemporary Judith who led the largest rescue operation of any group of Jews by a single individual since World War II. Between the mid-1970s and 2001, Judith (Judy) Feld Carr rescued 3,228 Syrian Jews.
As the Jewish Press explains, in Syria, “Jews were not allowed to travel more then three kilometers without a permit and were forced into ghettos. Their synagogues were burnt, business and educational opportunities for Jews were strictly limited, and those who tried to escape were often tortured or killed.” Jewish Virtual Library reported that “For years, the Jews in Syria lived in extreme fear. The Jewish Quarter in Damascus was under the constant surveillance of the secret police. […] Contact with foreigners was closely monitored. Travel abroad was permitted in exceptional cases, but only if a bond of $300-$1,000 was left behind, along with family members who served as hostages.”
Feld Carr first heard about the plight of Syrian Jewry in the 1970s, when she read an article in the Jerusalem Post about how 12 young Syrian Jews bodies were mutilated when they stepped on a minefield while trying to escape Syria. She had to act.
Growing up, she had a neighbor named Sophie who was a Holocaust survivor. Sophie encouraged young Judy to act in defense of the Jewish people. Since the young girl herself had suffered from anti-Semitism in school, she took Sophie’s words to heart.
Her activism on behalf of Syrian Jewry began as a philanthropy project. She and her late husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, organized educational events. Participants learned of the state-sponsored persecution of Syrian Jewry, including the 1947 pogroms in which Arab mobs smashed homes and synagogues en masse, the 1940s law barring Jews from purchasing land, the fact that Jews are the only religious group in Syria to have their faith written onto their passports and identity papers, etc. Once Feld-Carr fully understood the problem, she was determined to do more.
Thus Judy and Ronald Feld joined forces to start up a clandestine organization to save Syrian Jews. After some struggling, the couple succeeded to contact Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra, the Chief Rabbi of Syria in Damascus, and began by sending Hebrew books to Syria. They utilized phrases from the Bible in order to communicate in code. After her husband died of a heart attack and despite a death threat against her, she continued her work rescuing Syrian Jews alone, although she had three small children to care for and her life was always in danger. She was supported financially in this endeavor by the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands, which was set up by Toronto’s Beth Tzedek Congregation.
She eventually married Donald Carr, who also assisted Judy in this mission. With time, it became clear to them that there were people in Syria who could be bribed and that the Syrian Jewish community could be ransomed to freedom.
Feld Carr began buying people. “How do you negotiate the price of human lives? I was breaking up children from their parents. It was like the 1940s; they were desperate to get their children out,” she said. Nevertheless, through the assistance of Syrian Jews who had escaped to Canada on their own, she eventually acquired a network of contacts inside and outside of Syria who helped her to save three-quarters of the Syrian Jewish community, in addition to the Damascus Keter (Bible Manuscript), which was produced in Burgos in northwestern Spain in 1260 and taken to Muslim lands by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. It is now located in Israel’s National Library.
Feld Carr has been awarded the State of Israel’s Presidential Award of Distinction, the Order of Canada and the Simon Wiesenthal Award for Tolerance, Justice and Human Rights. Canadian historian Harold Troper has written a book about her, titled The Ransomed of G-d: The Remarkable Story of One Woman’s Role in the Rescue of Syrian Jews. This book has been made into a movie as well.
Indeed, as the Jewish people celebrate the Festival of Lights and remember the Chanukah heroine Judith, we should also remember this modern-day heroine.
By Rachel Avraham
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