Stories & Voices
United in Crisis, New York Rabbis Reflect on Ukraine
March 22nd, 2022
UJA Federation of New York >>

On Saturday evening, March 12, UJA sent 18 New York-based rabbis — representing every denomination — to the Polish-Ukrainian border. The rabbis went to bear witness, to reflect on what is being done to help alleviate the crisis, and to share with their diverse communities what more is needed in the days and weeks ahead. Each rabbi carried with them an enormous duffle bag filled with humanitarian supplies, which have since been sent over the border into Ukraine.

Many of the rabbis wrote of the experience, seeing UJA partners like the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and NATAN at work, and weaving Torah and Jewish thought into their reflections. The following are excerpts from those pieces.

Rabbi Rachel Ain
Sutton Place Synagogue

In 1993, when I came to Poland, the photos that I took were pictures of suitcases, shoes, and eyeglasses, of crematoria and broken synagogues. All remnants of our people whose lives had been ended.

But this week, the photos were different; they weren’t photos of the past, they weren’t photos of the dead — they were photos of the chance for life. I took photos of children, diapers, toys and clothing, people preparing to make aliyah, women, children, and people young and old.

As we drove through the Polish countryside, visiting the makeshift absorption centers for refugees, the border crossing, the train station, and even a hotel in Warsaw which has been taken over by the Jewish Agency, who has created a space for Ukrainian Jews (and descendants of those Righteous Among the Nations), what I saw and felt was the shadow of those who had died at the hands of the Nazis being bridged into new images.

The images are of Jews who can organize, help, rescue, and save. No longer at the whim of what others will do to our people, this time, our people were at the front lines, helping everyone from any background who needed a hot cup of coffee, a bed to sleep in, or a phone to use.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein
Bet Am Shalom Synagogue

In Przemysl, a mile from the border, we walked through a quickly converted shopping mall, now lined with thousands of cots, more hot food booths, a children’s play area, and NATAN’s makeshift infirmary (in a converted motorcycle parts store!), run by volunteer physicians from Hadassah Hospital. Selfless, heroic Jews all.

In every case, these fellow Jews spoke with pride about this being “our time.” Our time to step up and reboot history. Our time to respond to the memory of our own dark fate in Poland with the Torah’s proper response: Do not stand idly by. Love your neighbor as yourself. Remember that you were strangers.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
UJA-Federation Scholar-in-Residence

In Poland, where once we were killed for being Jews, we are now sources of life for all. This is a remarkable and shocking new reality. It was, and remains, too much to absorb. But as Pirkei Avot reminds us, now is the time to “say little and do much.”

At the Medyka border crossing, we watched women and children make their way into Poland. We saw countless charitable organizations with tents full of hot things to drink, baby clothes, and diapers. A Sikh humanitarian television crew walked by. A German pastor shared a prayer. And, closest to the border, suddenly an Israeli flag. There, the very first thing fleeing refugees encountered, were Israeli paramedics. One of them shared with us, “Friends back home asked me if we check who’s Jewish when they cross the border. I reminded them that we learned about selections 80 years ago. We don’t do that. We’re here to help everyone.”

Say little. Do much.

Rabbi Steven Exler
Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit 

What could we offer them alongside our compassionate ears and our presence?  One rabbi on our trip spoke Russian, and was able to communicate from us a message of support and hope and solidarity — from us and from all of our communities, tens of thousands strong.  I found myself repeatedly putting my hands upon my heart in a gesture of togetherness and love as I connected for brief moments with the many refugees we saw. And with these Jewish refugees in the Novotel who told us their stories, including a mother who fled with her four- and nine-year-old children, forced to separate from her spouse, and including a 95-year-old man who, after having had neighbors have to bring him down to the bomb shelter because his hearing was too poor to hear the sirens, and then took a train alone across Ukraine and waited 24 hours without food and water to cross the border, and slept on his own in youth hostel for three days until he could meet his son who had recently made aliyah and was able to make it to Poland to meet him and escort him the rest of the way, God willing to Israel, as we concluded our time sitting with them, we sang all together, Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun

A trip like this is profoundly unsettling, and leaves one with more questions than answers. You begin to wonder how it is possible that within the family of mankind there can be such violence. Why would someone do this, and inflict so much pain and suffering? But even as this question gnaws at the heart, the mind knows the reality: violence has been with us from the very beginning, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. But the fact that violence is part of life only makes reality more painful. Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet who survived the Holocaust, wrote a powerful poem that captures the anguish one feels in confronting endless inhumanity:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

In the poem, Eve, the mother of all mankind, is pleading with her son Cain: Why are you doing this? But Eve is cut down before she can speak; violence silences her plea. Eve's shock at seeing violence arise in the world’s first family is one we share with her right now.

Rabbi Elie Weinstock
Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach

We drove to Lublin, a city with a long Jewish history that is a stone’s throw from the Majdanek concentration camp. We visited the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, which is now a hotel, restaurant, and museum — and been transformed into a collection center and hostel for Ukrainian refugees.

Before leaving, a few of us sang and danced to a tune composed by Rabbi Meir Shapiro using the words of Isaiah 8:10:

עֻצוּ עֵצָה וְתֻפָר דַּבְּרוּ דָבָר וְלֹא יָקוּם כִּי עִמָּנוּ אֵל׃  

Hatch a plot — it shall be foiled; Agree on action — it shall not succeed. For with us is God!

According to the Midrash, when Mordechai learns of Haman’s plot, he tears his clothes over the impending doom. He sees young children and asks them what they are studying. The children respond with the above verse in Isaiah. This, the Midrash teaches, gives Mordechai the confidence to fight back, and the rest is history.

As we danced in the Beit Midrash of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in 2022 in a Poland whose Jewish community — assisted by Jews around the world — is saving lives of those fleeing into Poland, I felt a sense of confidence and even serenity that wicked plots will be foiled, and evil actions will not succeed — for with us is God.