Judy’s story - the heroism of a Canadian who smuggled Jews out of Syria

Born in the city of Montreal, Canada, Judy would go on to lead a clandestine operation to smuggle more than 3,000 Jews out of Syria between 1975 and 2000.

Judy Feld Carr: I was a musicologist; I didn’t know anything about Syria (photo credit: JEWISH WOMEN'S ARCHIVE)
Judy Feld Carr: I was a musicologist; I didn’t know anything about Syria
(photo credit: JEWISH WOMEN'S ARCHIVE)
“There is one thing you have to understand as all this was taking place,” says Judy Feld Carr as she began to relay her extraordinary tale. “I cannot stress enough the secrecy of it all.”
Born in the city of Montreal, Canada, Judy would go on to lead a clandestine operation to smuggle more than 3,000 Jews out of Syria between 1975 and 2000. Yet there would be nothing in her early life to suggest that she would carry out an international human rescue mission straight out of the pages of a Tom Clancy novel. Judy was raised in the small mining town of Sudbury, nestled in the frozen wilderness of northern Ontario, where her Russian Jewish father made his living as a fur trader.
“We would live in the bush for half the year, where I learned a lot about myself. My father was the president of the Sudbury Jewish community and I was the only Jew in a Catholic elementary school,” says Judy, who was frequently the target of antisemitic attacks from fellow classmates. Judy recounted an incident in second grade when a kid accused her of killing Jesus and threw a rock at her face, smashing her bottom teeth.
“Luckily they were baby teeth,” Judy chuckles. “But these are things that always stick with you.” In 1957, she left Sudbury to study music education at the University of Toronto, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in musicology. Several years later, Judy would marry a young physician named Ronald Feld (Rubin) and the couple would raise three children.
Judy and her husband became involved in their Jewish community, noting with pride the fact that she became the first woman president of Beth Tzedec Congregation (1982-1983) in Toronto, one of the largest synagogues in Canada. Judy was one of the millions involved in the rescue of Soviet Jewry and one of many who sent letters to Avital Sharansky.
“Between my work with the JDL at that time, family, holding a job... my life was a little hectic to say the least!” notes Judy.
Judy came across an article from The Jerusalem Post that reported on the tragic deaths of 12 Syrian Jewish men, who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee the country to Turkey. Judy was struck by the fact that the Syrian guards callously stood by and watched them die, one by one.
“I was a musicologist, I didn’t know anything about Syria,” says Judy. “But something inside of me wanted to learn more and raise awareness.” Judy and Rubin approached the Israeli Consulate to see what they could do, where the consul instructed: “schrei gevalt” (Yiddish for “yell a lot”).
Since independence, Syria’s estimated 40,000 Jews were subject to some of the worst forms of violence and discrimination imaginable. Unlike other Arab states, Syrian Jews were not officially expelled from the country. That did not stop the government from torturing and murdering anyone attempting to flee, while holding their families hostage. Sporadic riots killed dozens of Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes, shops and synagogues. The community itself was under heavy surveillance by the Mukhabarat (Syria’s secret police) and Jews could not travel more than three km from their neighborhoods without a permit.
In 1975, Syrian president Hafez Assad explained why he refused to let the country’s Jews leave. “I cannot let them go,” he says, “because if I let them go how can I stop the Soviet Union sending its Jews to Israel, where they will strengthen my enemy?” Judy explained, given the narrow streets and where Jews were physically located, they were being leveraged as hostages against Israel.
Yet despite their perilous situation, it did not seem those in the news media were willing to yell gevalt. Following the barbaric murder of four Syrian Jewish girls (three sisters and their cousin), who were raped and mutilated while attempting to escape the country, Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” broadcasted a segment on Syrian Jews, in which he claimed “life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past” and that Syrian President Bashar Assad was “cool, strong, austere and independent.” A Jewish merchant from Damascus even claimed life was good for Syrian Jews and that any antipathy was the result of Israeli actions. It must have slipped Wallace’s mind that two members of the merchant’s own family had fled Syria while his other relatives were being interrogated in a state prison for a month.
Despite lacking a media megaphone, Rubin would chair a teach-in and Judy gave speeches on the human rights of Syria’s Jews. One of their phone calls finally came through to Syria, reaching the home of a Syrian Jewish woman who was working for the Mukhabarat. The woman’s terrified husband was the only one home at the time, leading him to divulge the phone number of Ibrahim Hamra, who would become the chief rabbi of Syria, along with the address of his school. From that point on, Judy never called Syria again.
Judy and Rubin then came up with the idea to send a telegram in French to the school, since it is a widely spoken language in Syria, asking the rabbi if he needed any religious books. Hamra replied with a list of books, which Judy proceeded to purchase in Toronto and send to him by air mail. Sadly in 1973, Rubin suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving Judy alone with their three small children.
Needing to make a living, Judy fell back to her musical training by teaching in high school and giving private lessons in the evenings. Gradually, she became more deeply involved in the rescue of Syria’s Jews. Holding three jobs, Judy went on to join the board of Beth Tzedec Congregation and the board created a fund in Rubin’s memory. In 1977, Judy married Donald Carr, a Toronto lawyer, who was one of only a handful of people who knew about her clandestine activities, along with her now six children sworn to secrecy.
“My children knew what was happening,” says Judy. “Can you imagine such a responsibility? They knew about all of the secret conversations and the rescue efforts. But they also knew never to tell anyone what they heard at home. Because if word ever got out, it would mean the difference between life and death.”
Judy and her committee quietly raised funds from Jews throughout North America to finance her activities, but her operation would expand when Hannah Cohen (a Syrian Jewish woman from Toronto) traveled to Aleppo to visit her brother who was a rabbi. Hannah was arrested and questioned for a whole day in a secret police prison but managed to smuggle in her underwear a list of rabbis, as well as a letter from them begging Judy to get the Jews out of Syria. Going forward, this would serve as a major turning point in Judy’s actions.
“Judy, you have to take my brother out of Syria!” Hannah told her friend, referring to her brother, Rabbi Eliahou Dahab. “He has cancer and does not have a long time to live.” Initially, Syrian authorities refused to allow his departure. But Judy had met an elderly couple from Aleppo who came to visit her in Toronto, and they described how Mukhabarat agents could be bribed to let Jews go. Judy began setting up her underground network to fly the rabbi to Toronto for medical treatment, as well as raising funds to pay for bribes and his airline ticket. The rabbi’s dying request was to be with his 97-year-old mother in Israel, whom he had not seen since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948.
Dahab passed away in Holon in his daughter’s house, but not before his final wish was granted. The following year, Judy rescued his daughters who were still in Syria; one of whom is now a grandmother in Bat Yam while her sister currently lives in New York.
Judy’s underground network began the rescue of individual Jews through the bribery of Syrian government functionaries, judges and even Mukhabarat officers. Remarkably, nobody in the Canadian Jewish community pressed Judy for specifics on what was being done with the raised funds. In other words, it was the best-kept secret in the Jewish world.
With each successful rescue, more individual Jews sought Judy’s help in escaping Syria. Each case was unique, since the Syrian authorities would not allow entire families to leave together. They were forced to leave immediate members of their family behind as hostages and the amount of money for the bribe would vary according to the person. But Judy also found herself needing to compose inventive excuses for granting Jews permission to leave. Some were allowed to “leave” for medical treatment, business purposes or visiting family who succeeded in leaving Syria in the 1940s and 1950s before it was illegal to do so. Each Jew allowed to leave Syria deposited money as a guarantee for his or her return, though authorities often knew full well none would return. When families were reunited, they were quietly taken to Israel by the Mossad.
“I know she [Judy] built a network of contacts in Syria,” remarked former Israeli ambassador to Canada Itzhak Shelef. “How she managed that, I don’t know.” Shelef was not alone in his astonishment, as Judy gradually worked closely with the Mossad to continue smuggling Jews out of the country, relating how former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon requested she smuggle the entire family of an Israel Air Force member. The operation turned out to be a success. Judy received official letters of recognition from former Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
“What the Syrian authorities did to Jews was nothing short of absolute cruelty,” says Judy when describing the tortures endured by captives held in secret prisons. “You must understand that we needed to get the Jews out of prison immediately.” Torture methods included starvation, sleep deprivation and the pulling of fingernails. Judy recounted the painful experiences of Elie Swed, who was put in an underground cell measuring one by one-and-a-half meters – for the crime of having visited his sisters in Israel. Elie was subjected to electric shocks and severe beatings. Selim, his elder brother, was later imprisoned and likewise tortured. After a considerably amount of bribery and international pressure spurred on at Judy’s behest, the two brothers would be released.
“If Jews were still in Syria, there is no doubt in my mind that one of the sides fighting in this ongoing civil war would have killed them all,” says Judy, while noting that there were few (if any) Jews left in Syria today.
Some of Judy’s most interesting stories involve the saving of priceless Jewish texts such as the Damascus Keter (a codex of the Hebrew Bible). Handwritten in 1180, it was taken to Muslim lands by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and was smuggled by one of Judy’s agents hidden in stacks of documents. Today, it resides in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. Other precious Jewish texts included an Aleppo Torah scroll and about 150 books.
“The smuggler left the silver Aleppo Torah case for the Syrians,” says Judy when describing how the scroll was smuggled out. “I only cared about getting the Torah scroll out of there.”
A total of 3,228 Jews were rescued due to Judy’s actions, many of whom live in Israel today and others places, such as Brooklyn, São Paulo, Brazil, and Panama. A considerable number have even taken to name their daughters and granddaughters “Judy” in honor of their rescuer. Despite her story finally being revealed after her being awarded the Order of Canada and the Israel Presidential Award of Distinction, among other accolades, very few in Israel have heard of the heroism of this Canadian woman who rescued Syria’s Jews.
Bradley Martin is a Senior Fellow with the News and Public Policy Group Haym Salomon Center and Deputy Editor for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research