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Exodus of Syrian Jewry Completed As Chief Rabbi Leaves N.Y. for Israel

The exodus of Syrian Jewry has been declared complete.

The departure to Israel of Syrian Chief Rabbi Aviraham Hamra on Monday marked the end of an emigration which began in April 1992 and has brought 3,800 of Syria’s 4,000 Jews out of the country. Hamra, who had been living in New York for the past year, had been holding up his aliyah until virtually all of his community was safely out.

Israeli censors and American Jewish organizations involved in the exodus had kept the full pace of the departures quiet. The fact that a third of those who left Syria went on to Israel, after arriving in the United States, remained a total secret until this week.

At a reception in his honor Sunday night in Brooklyn, Hamra, tall and looking younger than his 51 years, stood at the podium in a catering hall and pronounced the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for “sustaining and bringing us to this day.”

All of the roughly 230 Jews still in Syria are free to leave, and a handful are expected to arrive in New York this week, according to those involved.

“Now the community in Syria is gone,” Hamra said at a news conference Sunday, explaining why the time had come to make aliyah. “Now that there is an agreement on peace, what was recently a dream is being realized,” he said, referring to the new atmosphere in the Middle East.

On the eve of his departure, more than 100 Syrian Jews gathered at the reception Sunday hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Some, like the rabbi, had only recently left. Among that group was Selim Swed, who had become a focus of Jewish efforts when he was imprisoned by Syrian authorities in 1987.

He was released after more than five years the same week the exodus began in 1992. On Sunday, he was happily making the rounds with his daughter and son-in-law, inviting people to the forthcoming wedding of another daughter.

Also at the gathering were those from the community’s second generation, children of immigrants who left Syria early this century and who had fought for the emigration of their cousins.

Others had arrived by stealth during the decades in which emigration from Syria was banned, but had risked everything to escape.

Even after Syrian President Hafez Assad permitted Jews to travel freely, and thereby tacitly permitted the community’s emigration, Syrian Jews feared to rejoice publicly.

Over the past years, Israeli censors banned coverage of the exodus out of fear of jeopardizing the operation, and American Jewish publications voluntarily downplayed the story.

HAMRA WILL JOIN 1,500 SYRIAN JEWS IN ISRAEL

Israel had planned to left the cloak of secrecy Tuesday, as Hamra stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, but the story was publicized in Israel on Monday following an announcement from Syria.

In Israel, Hamra will join 1,500 Syrian Jews who have made aliyah in the past two years after arriving in New York from Damascus. That part of the exodus has been kept absolutely secret until now since in giving permission for Jews to travel in 1992, Assad specifically stipulated that they were not to go to Israel.

More of the recent arrivals are expected to follow the rabbi to Israel, according to officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has sent special emissaries to encourage aliyah among the newcomers in New York.

“It’s a hard time,” said Eddie Hamra, a cousin of the rabbi who escaped to New York 15 years ago, explaining why so many of the new arrivals are moving on to Israel. “The economy is going down and it’s very difficult to find jobs.”

Habib Kamkhaji, a doctor who left Damascus two years ago, hopes by the end of the year to move to Israel. It will be easier to be accredited there with his Damascus University medical degree, he said.

Moving to Israel will the fulfillment of all he was taught in his Jewish school in Damascus.

“In the Talmud Torah, it was always Israel, Israel, the Jewish people have to go to Israel,” he said.

At the reception Sunday, those whose families number among the estimated 230 Jews still in Syria were the most reluctant to talk about their plans. They were also the most disturbed about the publicity being given now to the departures.

All those now in Syria hold travel documents and could leave tomorrow, according to Syrian Jews and officials of the JDC, which had coordinated the exodus.

Some are still selling property and getting ready to travel. Some feel they are too old to start a new life. Others have sent their family to safety in the United States but have continued running their businesses in Damascus.

And some, said Janet Zolta, the daughter of Syrians who came to America early in the century and an activist in the Brooklyn Syrian community, “are” waiting until they can walk across the border” when peace with Israel is achieved.

So why now is Hamra, who was the spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community since the mid-1970s, moving to Israel amid such publicity?

“Because of the advances in peace with Syria,” he replied. He noted the recent Syrian gestures toward Israel, such as Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa’s interview with Israel Television.

“Solving the problem of Syrian Jews is a big step toward peace. Maybe I am a piece of the peace,” Hamra said.

One American Jewish leader voiced similar speculation this week.

‘A SHOT IN THE ARM TO SYRIAN NEGOTIATIONS’

“It is being timed to give a shot in the arm to the Syrian negotiations and reflect some good will on the part of the Syrians,” said the leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The fact that the announcement of Hamra’s departure came from Damascus on Monday served to support this view.

At his news conference Sunday, Hamra joked with reporters and sidestepped sensitive questions with a smile and the skill of a seasoned diplomat who was trained in dealing with Syria’s secret police.

When asked, for instance, if the decision to go public with his aliyah and to lift the broad cloak of censorship was based on decisions from political higher-ups in Israel, the United States or Syria, the rabbi replied:

“I always weigh every communal decision with reasonable people.”

In remarks directed at the Israeli public delivered in excellent Hebrew learned from years of studies and clandestine listening to Israel Radio broadcasts, Hamra was full of praise for Assad.

The Syrian president “understood our desire to unify with our families.”

He had praise as well for the American and Israeli governments.

And he thanked the Jewish organizations, which had assisted in the exodus of his community.

The emigration and resettlement in Brooklyn involved the cooperation of the JDC, which handled the arrangements from Syria to New York; the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped obtain refugee asylum for the Syrian Jews who had arrived on visitor visas; and the New York Association for New Americans, an agency of New York’s UJA-Federation, and the Sephardic Bikur Cholim, an agency of the Syrian Jewish community, which cooperated on resettlement efforts.

As to his own plans for the future, after he settles in Holon where he has family, Hamra had only a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

The mood this week was best captured by Ralph Goldman, executive vice president emeritus of the JDC, who quoted a biblical verse at Sunday’s Brooklyn celebration.

“Zeh hayom asah hashem, nagila v’nishmach bo,” he said: “This is the day that God has made. Let us be happy and rejoice in it.”

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