October 3, 2022

Our Time to Be Righteous

Diane Bakst Director, Women's Philanthropy

For the past seven months, our Federation and our overseas partners have been supporting rescue and relief operations for Jews in Ukraine. The base of most of these efforts has been Poland, which has absorbed more Ukrainians than any other country… more than two million so far.

I recently traveled to Poland and Israel with our new UJA Campaign Chair Michele Landau and Women’s Philanthropy President Deborah Jacob.

We followed some of the $3.5 million in emergency relief we have raised in Greater MetroWest, as well as our annual UJA Campaign dollars that build relationships on the ground before a crisis hits. We saw why this is the largest humanitarian crisis to happen in Europe since WWII… We met with many refugees and many helpers.

Our first stop was Israel. So far this year, 12,000 Ukrainians have officially moved to Israel. They receive government assistance and a safe place to start a new life. But they are traumatized from war and from leaving family members behind in Ukraine – especially men and elderly relatives.

We visited a Youth Village run by our partners at Jewish Agency for Israel – normally used during the school year for programs for at-risk kids from across Israel. With just a few weeks to plan it, they were preparing to welcome 400 Ukrainian children for a very special summer camp.

The counselors are all olim (immigrants) who speak Russian or Ukrainian. They understand what it’s like to be new and starting over. The camp also employs psychologists to address the trauma these kids have been through.

This is what the Federation system is set up to do. We have the camp facility, we know how to run youth programs, and we were READY to respond.

Our next stop was Krakow, Poland. The JCC Krakow, opened 2008 with a focus on rebuilding Jewish life in Poland, is less than an hour’s drive from Auschwitz. Prior to World War II, 80 percent of world’s Jews – 3.5 million – lived in Poland. Most were killed by the Nazis, and what fragile Jewish life was left in Poland after WWII was nearly extinguished completely under Communism.

Places like the JCC have stepped in to reignite Jewish life. Then, when Russia invaded Ukraine, they hung a banner saying “Welcome” in Ukrainian, not knowing quite what to expect. Since then, they’ve been serving hundreds of people per day, mostly women and children, providing essential supplies, clothing, and shoes. In the “shop” everything is free, but visitors are able to select what they need, giving them a sense of dignity.

We met Nastya (left), 32, a young mother who was vegan chef in Ukraine. In February, she left her husband behind and walked with her five-year-old daughter to the Romanian border. Desperate, they got in a stranger’s car and made their way to Krakow, a place she had never been before. She Googled “Jewish community Krakow” and found the JCC.

Nastya’s daughter is now in JCC kindergarten learning Polish, celebrating Shabbat each Friday. Nastya knows she has no life left in Ukraine but her husband is still there. All the Ukrainian mothers she has met are in similar limbo. “Don’t forget us,” she told us. “As it was 5 months ago in Ukraine, so it is today.”

Across Poland, our partners on the ground, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), JAFI and others, work collaboratively to provide whatever support refugee families need. We saw how this all works at our next stop, Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. There, our partners have taken over an entire Warsaw hotel, not far from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Each room is filled with clothing and supplies organized by age. You can stay here, get supplies, food, clothing, and learn about what to expect when making Aliyah (moving to Israel). An Israeli consular official issues visas at the hotel and a week later refugees can be on a plane to a new life in Israel.

Our ability to organize like this – multiple Jewish partners working together in this very same place – is a ray of hope in a place of so much loss.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, from New York City, is currently the Chief Rabbi of Poland. He spoke to us at the only synagogue in all of Warsaw to survive the Holocaust. He and the congregation have been working tirelessly to house and help the refugees. Why do they feel this drive to help? we asked him. “All of our grandparents were either saved by righteous Gentiles… or they didn’t survive because there weren’t enough righteous people. Now is our time to be righteous and help.”

This crisis is far from over.

The mental health needs of these refugees, and the helpers who have been helping for months, are enormous. Rabbi Schudrich described this new phase of the crisis this way: “We succeeded in saving them from Death. Now we need to give them Life.”

Our own community’s support of the UJA Annual Campaign, combined with Ukraine Emergency fund dollars, made this dramatic response possible. I was so proud to see the Federation system at work and to see with my own eyes the difference we are making in the lives of so many displaced people.