Saving the Syrian Jewish Brides

January 19, 2018
by Rachel Harrison

In June 1977, 12 young Syrian Jewish women took part in proxy marriages to male members of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn–complete strangers–in order to emigrate to the United States.

In June 1977, Syrian President Hafez el-Assad approved a plan in which 12 young Jewish women would take part in proxy marriages to male members of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn–complete strangers–after which they would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. This decision came after months of secret negotiations between Representative Stephen J. Solarz–whose congressional district covered the Ocean Parkway and Midwood sections of Brooklyn where approximately 25,000 Jews of Syrian background lived at the time–and President Assad.

HIAS staff member Shlomo Dekel and William Males help complete the immigration preocessing at the HIAS office, August 16, 1977.

After the 1948 founding of the State of Israel, Jews in Syria faced state-sponsored violence and discrimination, including riots and pogroms. By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, there were an estimated 5,000 Jews in Syria, down from 40,000-45,000 in 1948. Jews were barred from working for the government or banks, owning telephones, or holding driver’s licenses. Jewish property and passports were seized, Jewish bank accounts were frozen, Jewish schools were closed, and the Jewish cemetery in Damascus was paved over.

After Jewish residents of the three largest Jewish communities in Syria–Damascus, Aleppo, and Kamishli–were placed under house arrest for eight months following the Six-Day War, Syrian Jews began to flee in secret, sometimes with help from abroad. If caught, they faced imprisonment, hard labor, and/or death, as could any family members they left behind. Most of those who escaped were young single men, and by 1977 there were 500 young, unmarried Jewish women left in Syria who, with the young Jewish men gone, and forbidden from marrying non-Jews, had no marriage prospects.

Representative Solarz traveled to Damascus in December 1976, and met with Jewish leaders and Syrian government officials. The Jewish community asked that Solarz help bring these young women to his district in Brooklyn, as it has such a strong Syrian Jewish community. In Brooklyn, Solarz contacted the local Syrian Jewish communal leaders to raise funds and secure eligible young men, while HIAS and NYANA (New York Association for New Americans) staff found homes, English-language classes, and jobs for the women.

US Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance was in conversations with President Assad regarding these women in February 1977. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put Congressman Solarz in touch with President Carter, who then made a personal plea to Assad three months later. Assad eventually agreed to let 12 of the women leave through proxy marriages. Syrian yeshiva students in Brooklyn sent marriage proposals in June and July, while Stephen Shalom and Michael Lewin–Solarz’s chief of staff–traveled to Damascus.

The weddings took place on July 19, 1977 in the Damascus synagogue with Michael Lewin standing in for the absent grooms. At the same time, two other Syrian Jewish women were married in person to Americans who had come to Syria looking for wives. More than 500 people were present for the marriages.

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