TORONTO (Jul. 24)
Since the mid-1970s, thousands of Syrian Jews hoping to escape a repressive regime have discovered that, when all else failed, a mysterious angel known to them only as “Mrs. Judy” could help them and their families reach freedom.
Judy Feld Carr of Toronto, the recipient of an award of merit in June from Haifa University, recently broke 23 years of silence to acknowledge that she has helped more than 2,500 Jews leave Syria since the early 1970s.
“There was nothing ever said publicly about this work because I didn’t want to jeopardize anybody’s chances of leaving the country or the work I was doing or my own security,” she said during the course of a series of interviews about her efforts on behalf of Syrian Jewry.
A 57-year-old grandmother and musicologist, Feld Carr has been the focus of intense coverage by the Israeli media since she received the prestigious award, which was last given out years ago to the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Now that the estimated 130 Jews who remain in Syria are free to leave, Feld Carr feels that the story about her efforts may safely be told.
Hearing in 1972 that a dozen Syrian Jews were killed by an exploding land mine while trying to escape to Turkey, Feld Carr and her late husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, established a committee at their Toronto synagogue, Beth Tzedek, to aid the 6,000 Jews then in Syria.
After much effort, they eventually succeeded in contacting some Syrian Jews by telephone and then by telegram.
At the request of a rabbi in Damascus, they began sending books, religious objects and money.
Even after her husband died suddenly in 1973, leaving behind a 33-year-old widow with three children, Feld Carr continued her secretive mission, aware that Syria’s isolated Jews had already come to rely upon her as a trusted Western contact.
As donations quietly poured into the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands — it would eventually top $1 million — Feld Carr set out upon the delicate task of “buying Jews.”
Gradually, she built up an underground network of Syrian government officials, lawyers and judges willing to accept “baksheesh,” or bribes, to let Jews leave.
All money sent to the country had to go through numerous secondary channels to prevent it from being traced.
“At first we worked clandestinely with people who tried to smuggle Jews over the mountains from Syria to Lebanon, and later from Syria to Turkey,” she said.
Beginning by rescuing people one by one, she gradually advanced to redeeming whole families and groups at a time.
“By the time they found me, they had tried everything else to get out. I was their last resort,” she said.
“They had to find me, but they didn’t know my last name and they couldn’t write me a letter or telephone. They had to go through the Syrian-Jewish underground.”
Syria’s Jews were forbidden to emigrate until 1992, when the gates to freedom opened briefly and then shut for two more years.
But during the years the restrictions were in place, Feld Carr helped them acquire temporary passports, usually valid for only a few weeks or months.
With passports and return airline tickets in hand, Syria’s Jews were permitted to “visit” the United States, Canada and sometimes France.
Most subsequently stayed in the United States; some, feeling more comfortable in the Middle East, went to Israel.
After she married Donald Carr in 1977, becoming a mother to three more children, Feld Carr found that her house had become a stopover point for scores of Syrian Jews in transit.
While a few of those she helped know nothing of their benefactress, many others have claimed that she did nothing less than save their lives.
Feld Carr also helped improve the living conditions of many Jews still in Syria, sometimes with the discreet assistance of Canadian diplomats.
Feld Carr spoke during the interviews about the case of the Suede brothers, Eli and Salim, who were imprisoned and tortured for 4 1/2 years in Damascus without charges or a trial.
She said she fought hard “for every bar of soap, for every shower” and other basic amenities for the brothers.
After contacting the U.N. Committee on Disappearance, she helped to secure their release from prison in 1992 and their exit visas in 1994.
Attending the wedding of one of their daughters in New York, she was invited to stand beneath the wedding canopy, where the mother of the bride took off her own corsage and pinned it on Feld Carr.
“Without you, we wouldn’t be having this wedding,” said the woman. “You are the mother.”
Another Suede daughter was married last month in Israel and Feld Carr attended the ceremony.
“People were coming up to me that I had never seen before and saying, “Mrs. Judy, you don’t know me, but you took my father out, you took my sister out, and you took me out.’
“When I arrived, they announced, `Mrs. Judy is here,’ and the whole place stood up.”
For her part, Feld Carr said all she has ever wanted in return for her efforts are photos of those she has rescued.
She wants to show them to her grandchildren.
In addition to the award from Haifa University, she has a letter she received last year from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which he thanked her “for 23 years of hard and dangerous work, during which you devoted your life to the Jewish community of Syria.”
“This is the pinnacle of my Zionist life,” said Feld Carr. “I will be forever grateful for this recognition by the Jewish state.”