In April 1992, Syrian President Hafez Assad invited the leaders of his country’s 4,000-member Jewish community for the first audience with him in a decade.
It was shortly before Passover, and Chief Rabbi Abraham Hamra hoped to plead for the freedom of Eli and Selim Swed, two brothers imprisoned since 1987.
His wish was granted, but an even greater liberation was in store.
Assad had decided to let Hamra’s people go.
Assad let it be known that he was lifting the decades-old restrictions that barred Jews from leaving the country.
In Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, and in Deal, N.J. — strongholds of America’s 30,000-member Syrian Jewish community — there was elation, but also fear.
Would Assad keep his word?
In Manhattan, Jewish groups working for Syrian Jewry reacted publicly with a subdued, cautious optimism.
Privately, these concerns set the agenda at a meeting of Jewish organizations convened on May 8 by Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations.
The purpose of the meeting was to coordinate efforts in resettling the Syrian Jews who were just beginning to receive exit visas, and the thousands they hoped would follow.
NO TELLING WHAT COULD BE PRETEXT TO STOP
But in the shadown of fear cast by Assad, there was also a conviction that the entire process must be kept as quiet and discreet as possible. There was no telling what could serve as a pretext to cut off the exodus.
The fact that Jews were emigrating — rather than just traveling abroad — was sensitive.
Still more potentially explosive was the fact that, from the very beginning, some of the Syrians went on from New York to settle in Israel, something which Assad had specifically prohibited.
By last week, when the operation was publicized and declared complete, 3,800 of Syria’s Jews had left the country, and 1,300 had settled in Israel.
It was an operation that cost tens of millions of dollars. But outside the community, there were no special appeals to meet the cost.
“One of the ideas we discussed was fundraising events across the country,” said Seymour Reich, who headed the Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But we decided against it, because it would highlight the settlement aspect, rather than the travel aspect.”
The meeting of Jewish groups — which was to be repeated every few weeks while the exodus continued — was held in the offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Among those at the meetings were representatives of the JDC, the CJF, the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Conference of Presidents task force, the UJA-Federation of New York, the New York Association for New Americans, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Sephardic Bikur Cholim, the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the United Israel Appeal.
The JDC, with its long history of aiding Syrian Jews, booked the tickets for freedom. But “we did not want it to be known that an organization was orchestrating the entire rescue operation,” said Gideon Taylor, who coordinated the operation for the JDC.
Instead, the American relatives of the Jews in Syria were told they could get tickets through groups in the Syrian emigre community, such as the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews and Sephardic Bikur Cholim.
These agencies then quietly turned to the JDC, which bought the tickets, arranging for them to be issued in the Syrian offices of the airlines, with a message that the tickets had been made available by the relatives.
To further disguise the mass exodus, the JDC booked round-trip tickets, and parceled out flights among different airlines.
“We went from using two airlines to six, to get as many Jews out as we could,” said Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.
The tickets were paid for by an anonymous individual donor in the Syrian community.
For its part, “the JDC made local payments and carried out critical arrangements which ensured a free flow of people,” said Taylor.
When the Syrians arrived in New York, they were greeted at the airport by representatives of the Bikur Cholim.
“We did not believe the news,” recalled Mayer Ballas, a Bikur Cholim board member. But betting on their hopes, they rented apartments for the first Jews who came out.
PAID FOR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION
Bikur Cholim further provided the newcomers with food and the household furnishings to start a new life. And in a particularly expensive measure, the organization helped the newcomers continue their childrens’ Jewish education, placing 700 children in 14 yeshivot.
All in all, Bikur Cholim had spent around $2 million by mid-1994.
The largest share of American resettlement expenses was borne by NYANA, which is also responsible for that half of the 40,000 annual immigrants from the former Soviet Union who settle in New York. Their efforts are funded by a mixture of government grants and money from the United Jewish Appeal and local Jewish federations.
But for the Syrian Jews, who arrived as tourists rather than refugees, there were no federal funds until they received asylum.
“And that was a process that takes a while,” said Gloria Zicht, director of social services at NYANA who oversaw the Syrian resettlement project.
So far, NYANA has spent $20.7 million on Syrian resettlement, with another $4 million budgeted for this year.
NYANA services included medical care, as well as English classes and employment assistance.
But since the entry-level jobs most of the newcomers found were not enough to support their large families, particularly given the cost of kosher food and yeshiva education, NYANA chipped in to help close the gap.
By now, more than 1,400 of the Syrians have received refugee asylum — entitling them to government support, with a few hundred more cases still in process.
“Just the fact the cases were adjudicated was unusual,” said Roberta Herche, director of United States operations for HIAS, which helped process the Syrians with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “These cases were not just put in line,” she said.
About 1,300 Syrian Jews have settled in Israel over these past two years; with the exception of 113 who came via Turkey, all had arrived in New York first. Another 500 or more are expected to make aliyah from New York in the coming months.
“We expect that the aliyah of Rabbi Hamra (last week) will encourage their aliyah to Israel,” said Gad Ben-Ari, head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation to America.
“With the arrival of the first Jews to Brooklyn, we started a wide effort to reach every family here, to help them make aliyah to Israel,” said Ben-Ari.
ISRAEL ENCOURAGED THEM TO MAKE ALIYAH
This included special Arabic-speaking emissaries, traveling to New York to make the argument for aliyah.
Because Assad had explicitly said that Syria’s Jews did not have permission to travel to Israel, the question of aliyah was one of great sensitivity.
“The first wave was not allowed to go to Israel, for security reasons basically. They were discouraged until mid-’93,” said Ballas of Bikur Cholim.
Jewish Agency officials also found them-selves competing with the assistance the Jewish community in America gave the newcomers here.
To help encourage Syrian Jews to make aliyah — and to indirectly compete with the resettlement assistance offered by the American Jewish groups — Israel increased the benefits being given to new Syrian immigrants to exceed those being offered Russian Jews, said one person familiar with the discussions among Jewish groups.
By early this year, Jewish groups in New York had become strongly supportive of the Jewish Agency aliyah efforts. At this point, people no longer feared that the aliyah would jeopardize the exodus — and it also became clear that American Jewish philanthropy could not afford the mounting costs of resettling the Syrians in New York.
CJF Associate Executive Vice President Richard Jacobs said the primary factors moving the community to support aliyah for the Syrians was their desire to be in Israel, and in some cases, to be reunited with their families in Israel.
But he said there was a financial component as well, particularly given the large Syrian families and low earning power of new immigrants. “Many of them will in fact be better off and have better opportunities in Israel,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.