Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue is a man on a mission — to Ukraine.
Our group of 18 rabbis arrived in Warsaw [yesterday] afternoon with huge duffel bags of medical supplies and luggage filled with clothing, food, and other humanitarian items.
After leaving the airport, we traveled to the JCC in Warsaw where we were met by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Shudrich, and other members of the Jewish community. Rabbi Shudrich explained how the community quickly formed a Crisis Management Center to address the refugee crisis.
We learned that there are 3 types of Jewish refugees who come to Poland: those who plan to make Aliyah to Israel; those who have friends or family in Poland or other countries and are looking to join them, and those who really don’t know where there want to go.
This third category of refugees are the most vulnerable and in need of assistance. Throughout the day, while we encountered the work of the Jewish community in Poland, we were told repeatedly that they are helping everyone, whether they are Jewish or not. Nobody is asked whether they are Jewish when they come seeking help.
Next, we went to Novotel, a hotel that is serving as the center for the Jewish Agency for Israel, and where refugees can obtain visas in order to make Aliyah. We met with several refugees who are making Aliyah on Tuesday. Their stories are heartbreaking.
Among the people we met was “Katya,” who recently crossed the border with her 9- and 4-year-old sons, leaving her husband behind to fight in Ukraine. She said until the Russian tanks got close to her town, they didn’t believe they would have to leave their home — they simply could not imagine this happening just a couple of weeks ago.
The volunteers who are working around the clock said that the refugees are coming with lots of strollers and very little luggage. They are overwhelmingly women and children (the men are in the army), and they are arriving with essentially the clothes on their back.
From Novotel we headed towards Lublin, stopping at Srodborow along the way. There, at a refugee transit center, we delivered the non-medical supplies we brought with us.
We also met with the President of Warsaw Jewish community, Leszek Piszewski, who explained how they have organized the community to help. My wife’s 4th and 5th grade classes at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy had made cards. I delivered them to the refugees who are making Aliyah, as well as the children at the transit center in Srodborow.
In Lublin we went to Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, a yeshiva that was one of the largest in the world in the 1930s. Today the Yeshiva is Hotel Ilan, which serves as a refugee donation center and temporary housing facility.
We met Agnes Littman, a young Jewish woman from Lublin who runs a dance school during the day and helps run the refugee donation center at night. She hasn’t slept much since the end of February. Agnes told us that many of the refugees not only come to “receive,” but they also offer to help others as well, however they can.
Now back at the hotel after a late night, we are getting on the bus at 6 a.m. to travel to the Ukrainian border. We will deliver medical supplies while visiting a train station and border crossings.
B’virkat Shalom (with blessings of peace),
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn
(Hat tip: Avi Kaner)