A Jewish agency helps immigrants and refugees find a home in Canada

Elise Herzig understands the importance of helping refugees coming to Canada. 

She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who arrived in Canada in 1952 and three years ago became the executive director of Jewish Immigration Aid Services for Newcomers (JIAS) Toronto. Her role in the agency is one that provides fulfillment professionally and personally. 

Because Herzig’s father benefited from settlement support she inherently understands the needs of newcomers entering Canada. From learning English, to finding work and housing, to actively being engaged socially, Herzig witnesses the benefits of providing support for those who have just arrived, as they are often overwhelmed, experiencing culture shock and trauma. It’s a similar situation that her father faced. 

Since 1922, JIAS Toronto has worked with and adapted to several waves of Jewish immigrants and refugees, assisting those from postwar Europe, North Africa, the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Syria, the former Yugoslavia, Argentina, and Israel. Today, it is the only Jewish agency in Canada solely dedicated to the settlement of immigrants and refugees. 

In 2015, JIAS Toronto became a Sponsorship Agreement Holder. The agency offers a wide range of programming to assist newcomers in finding other social groups, secular schools, Jewish education, senior care, employment opportunities, English classes and more. 

I spoke with Herzig over the phone to discuss the important work JIAS Toronto is doing to ensure Jewish and non-Jewish newcomers have their holistic needs met, how their work aligns with Jewish values, and how the agency stepped in during the Afghan crisis. 


How exactly do you find your clients? Do people come to you or do you decide to focus your efforts on certain global regions during a time of need? 

We don’t go to countries and appeal to people. Most of our clients come to us before they move to Canada. They tell us they’ve put in their paperwork and need some information in terms of work or housing and want to know what they’re eligible for. We might have clients already in the city who heard about us and know we offer specific services. We also get clients because we partner with different groups and we refer clients to them and vice versa. For example, we’ll refer clients to Kehilla Residential Programme (for affordable housing), or Jewish Family and Child Services (for family issues), or Jewish Vocational Services (for employment), or the Jewish Addiction Community Services (for addiction issues) and so on. We have a network of strategic collaborations. 

Are most of your clients still Jewish? 

Over the years, immigration patterns have changed. JIAS Toronto is the last remaining Jewish agency in Canada whose mandate is to support and settle immigrants. We’ve gone from having 100 per cent Jewish clients (from when we were founded) to now offering services to any newcomer who is eligible. A major reason we can do that today is we went from being fully funded by the Jewish community to now having funds come from the federal government and we partner with the federal government to help fulfill their immigration goals and mandate. We’re the only Jewish social service agency that can privately sponsor refugees. We do this work because it aligns with our values and the clients we serve. We thought we’d only do a few private sponsorships every year . . . we never envisioned the volume of work we’d be doing, but it’s incredibly meaningful because it connects us to our history. 

Can you talk to me about how JIAS Toronto aligns with Jewish values? 

I love talking about this. There are a number of commandments taught but the one commandment that is repeated more than any other is to help the stranger, to welcome the stranger, to love the stranger. It’s written 36 times in the Torah. I often ask why it is written so many times. There are many interpretations, but it’s not as easy as one thinks to help someone who is different from you. JIAS Toronto lets our organizers and staff stretch in a way that really helps not only the family that we’re helping but the next generation as well. On a personal level this work is very impactful because learning English for my father helped him further his personal ambitions. What JIAS Toronto really does, the essence of what we do, is fulfilling the commandments to help the stranger. The commandment of doing tikkun olam—looking at someone’s whole being, treating them with respect, looking at their holistic needs, making sure they’re warmly welcomed and asking yourself, what does that look like? It not only means a place to live and to feel safe in your home, but it also means finding a mentor, finding a community that resonates with you, helping a Jewish family find a synagogue or a non-Jewish family find a church or mosque. We help people in our settlement plans look at their holistic needs. We want them to thrive and succeed, not just to come and live here. 

Can you talk to me a bit more about looking at their needs holistically, instead of just the necessities? 

People that come to JIAS Toronto understand settling in a new country has many aspects and parts of those aspects cannot be accessed on the internet. Like, how do you find a mentor? Who’s going to find me my mentor? How do I build a social network? When we meet with a client we never say, “this is the organization you should volunteer at.” We say, “when you were in your home country what were you engaged with that gave you pleasure? What was meaningful to you?” or, “what did you want to do in your home country that you weren’t able to do?” or, “what do you hope and aspire to do in Canada?” We then identify with the client different organizations or individuals that they can connect with to make their own decisions but have a more informed lens. 

Are there specific stories that resonate with you in terms of families or individuals JIAS Toronto has helped? 

There is something every day that offers that Oprah, “ah-ha,” moment. Whether it’s helping someone who was a nurse in their home country become a nurse in Canada, which requires tests and exams that maybe you helped them prepare for. When a person has only been able to work a minimum wage job for years, but managed to finally land their dream job with a bit of our help, and you know it will change their life and their family’s life . . . they go from surviving to thriving. There’s the moment where you find out one of the refugee families you helped now has their child at an engineering program at a Canadian university. Last night, I spoke to a volunteer and she told me that a child she had been tutoring in high school is now in second year university and sent her flowers for her birthday because he knows he couldn’t have made it without her. There are moments every day. 

I’m going to pivot a bit here, but I wanted to ask you when the Afghan crisis began in the summer, how did JIAS Toronto become involved?  

When the Afghan crisis took place the first 18 military jets that brought Afghan refugees to Canada primarily came in as government assisted refugees. Which is a bit of a different process and they went to hotels initially and worked with resettlement agencies to get them their vaccines etc. We are working with one or two of those agencies in terms of getting them things like toys and clothing. We just got a shipment of winter gear sent to one of the hotels.  The groups we’re working with closely are a number of organizations and individuals looking to privately sponsor Afghan refugees. We’ve been working around the clock with different groups to support those efforts. Like working with those inside and outside of the Jewish communities to raise funds to help settle the new refugees that have been coming to Canada. I can’t go into detail on certain things. But what I can say is, I marvel at when a crisis like this happens, it is such an incredible thing to have my phone ringing off the hook of people in our community that have approached me to see how they can make a difference to help. It says something to me that our community understands on a very visceral level, maybe because of our history, the need to support and help individuals who are fleeing religious and political persecution. 

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein. 

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