I have just spent the week in Poland with 25 rabbinic colleagues, traversing the country, visiting various Jewish community centers that are taking care of Ukrainian refugees. What we encountered this week in Poland was shocking, although it was simultaneously exhilarating. Shocking, because the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a parade of human traffic not seen in Europe for generations. Exhilarating, because the level of care and concern, and active support, being shown and executed by the Polish Jewish community and a range of organizations from Israel and the United States, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Until a couple of months ago we had planned to spend this past week in Chicago, where I was co-chairing the Rabbinical Council of America’s annual convention, after we had missed two years of RCA conventions as a result of the pandemic. But following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and once the sheer scale of human suffering was revealed – suffering that affected multiple Ukrainian Jewish communities, along with Ukrainian Jewish families who faced daily bombardment and severe threats to their safety – we decided to postpone the Chicago convention, and instead organized a trip for a group of our members to visit Poland, where the daily influx of refugees in need was overwhelming the local Jewish community infrastructure.
Rather than relying on piecemeal media reports and sending a few dollars to relief organizations with no idea what the needs are or could become, we decided to see what was going on for ourselves, so that we can go back to our communities and ensure that we can usefully address this once-in-a-lifetime humanitarian crisis in which our communities have a live-action stake.
So often in my youth I heard how Jewish communities could have done more to help with the dreadful Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s, and then again immediately after the Second World War. I never want to feel that what is happening now was an opportunity missed, and that the same finger which was pointed at apathetic Jews living in relative comfort during that crucial period 80 years ago could justifiably be pointed at me, at my friends, at my community members, or at the Jewish world at large.
Allow me to share some statistics. According to the United Nations, 13 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since the war began. More than six million of those have crossed into neighboring countries – most of them into Poland. Earlier this week, the UN said that Poland has registered a staggering 3,396,792 Ukrainian refugees.
And while this number is fluid – and some refugees are even returning home as the war in places like Kyiv becomes less intense – by-and-large it reflects an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, for which Poland was wholly unprepared and is ill-equipped to deal with. Jewish refugee numbers are harder to pin down, but we were informed that over 22,000 Ukrainian Jewish refugees have already arrived in Israel and are going through absorption, including – shockingly – more than 160 Holocaust survivors in their late-80s and 90s.
According to Poland’s Chief Rabbi, the eminently amiable Michael Schudrich – an American active in Poland since 1990 – the Jewish community of Poland tried to preempt the crisis by preparing hundreds of beds for refugees in the days before the war began. But demand very quickly outstripped supply, and between his facilities, Chabad, and other charitable organizations, the Jewish community is now housing and feeding thousands of refugees in multiple converted community buildings across the country.
We visited several, such as the one in Lublin. Before the Holocaust, the Lublin building being used for refugees was a powerhouse educational institution: Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, brainchild of prewar-Poland’s most charismatic rabbi, Rav Meir Shapiro (1887-1933). Turned into a medical school by the postwar communists, in recent years it morphed into a kitschy tourist hotel exploiting the former yeshiva building for its historical significance. But over the past two months this former center of Talmudic scholarship has housed a procession of refugees in need, as they contemplate a shaky present and an uncertain future.
At Lublin, we met Anatoly, a 12-year-old boy from Kyiv who escaped from the inferno and is now being taken care of – housed, fed, clothed, and taught – by the Polish Jewish community under the direction of Rabbi Schudrich.
Rabbi Nafi Haleva of Istanbul, Turkey, suddenly ran back to the bus and reappeared with a formal boy’s suit. “This is for you, for your barmitzva,” Rabbi Haleva told a stunned Anatoly. “Last year, my son wore it for his barmitzva, and before I left home, he told me to take it to Poland and give it to a refugee barmitzva boy. So now it’s yours. Mazal Tov!” It was an incredibly moving moment.
Within a matter of hours, we were at Medyka, on the Ukrainian border. Dozens of tents have been erected to process and house refugees after they cross the border. Remarkably, the first humanitarian tent that refugees see after crossing the border from Ukraine proudly displays an Israeli flag. Run by an organization called Hatzala Lelo Gevulot (“Rescuers Without Borders”), this tent is the nerve-center of an operation that stretches well beyond the muddy border crossing, all under the dynamic leadership of the diminutive and indefatigable Ayala Smotrich, an absolute force of nature.
A number of us in the group had brought suitcases of medical supplies and medical equipment from the United States; we gave them to Ayala, and she informed us that these would be taken into the warzone across the border, where such supplies are unobtainable, and many Jews in need of medical assistance are relying on these deliveries to survive.
We also met Shimon Sabag and his son David, from an organization called Yad Ezer L’Haver, an affiliate of Bnai Zion. Shimon and David have an “ambulance” which they drive into Ukraine, with the sole purpose of locating and extracting aged Holocaust survivors, many of whose homes have been utterly destroyed.
Relying on a phone messaging app network of informers and a variety of other sources of information, they arrive to pick up the survivors without advance notice, like angels, often having run the gauntlet of Russian fire and bombardment, plucking the hapless Holocaust survivors from the rubble of their homes and spiriting them to safety. Dozens have already been found new homes in Israel, where they can now live out the remainder of their years.
In Cracow we met Stasya. Until three months ago, Stasya was an ordinary unassuming wife and mother in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Then, the war broke out. Under attack, she and her 5-year-old daughter traveled in horrific conditions through multiple countries until they eventually got to Cracow. For over a month her daughter cried hysterically every night, and Stasya was unable to calm her down.
Thankfully, Rabbi Avi Baumol, who works closely with Rabbi Schudrich, took Stasya in, offered her support, and she now works at the Cracow JCC helping other refugees. Each day, hundreds of refugees, each of them with similar stories to Stasya, line up at the JCC to get food and basic supplies as they contemplate an uncertain future.
Meanwhile, Stasya’s husband is unable to get out of Ukraine. He’s in Odessa, hiding in a bomb shelter each night, while during the day he tries to maintain his IT workload for the US company he works for. Stasya told us that she is never going back to Mykolaiv – her house was destroyed by a cluster bomb, and minefields planted by the Russians will take years to neutralize. “It’s not a place to bring up my daughter,” she said.
The thing is – none of this is ancient history; it’s happening right now. Thousands of people –who three months ago led normal lives in a civilized country – now find themselves at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, their lives upended by a war they don’t understand, and which has changed their lives forever.
For us, standing on the sidelines is not an option. Our time is right now. Previous generations had their tests, and they either passed or failed them. But for us, failure is not an option. Our resources are plentiful, information is clear, and our ability to personally make a difference is certain. We must keep our eye on the ball and march into the storm, so that we can do what needs to be done – and in the years ahead we will hold our heads up high and say that when the challenge came, our chance to do the right thing did not slip through our fingers.
In Parshat Behar, the Torah tells us: וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ … וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ … וָחַי עִמָּךְ – “If your brother becomes poor… you must help him… that he may live with you.” (Lev. 25:35) But according to Rabbi Aharon Walkin of Pinsk (1865-1942), “with you” means that the problem should live with you, not the person.
Simply giving money when someone is in need is not enough. If you have a brother or sister in need, their needs cut to the core of your being, and sorting out their problem is personal – it’s “with you.”
Over the past three months we have been handed a challenge. The problems of the Ukrainian refugees must never become a problem that is outside of who we are – it must constantly be “with you,” and we must do everything we can to solve it. Yes, the time is now.