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From the Medyka to Warsaw: Finding Inspiration in Poland

Editor’s Note: The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) recently ran a mission to Poland with approximately 20 rabbis from around the world. The purpose of the mission was to meet with the Jewish refugees from Ukraine to show support. Rabbi Zev Goldberg of Fort Lee and Rabbi Andrew Markowitz of Fair Lawn both participated on the mission. Below you will find the remarks that Rabbi Goldberg shared with his shul, Young Israel of Fort Lee, this past Shabbat.

It is wonderful to be back home after my four-day whirlwind trip to Poland. I began to write this sermon 30,000 feet in the air, sitting in a cramped window seat on my flight back to JFK. My head was spinning with so many thoughts and stories—it was a challenge to commit anything to paper.

Where to start?

Should I discuss the in-depth briefing we received from Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland? Should I highlight the work of Shimon Sabag, an Israeli we met at the Medyka border? Shimon volunteers for an organization called Yad Ezer L’Chaver, and he drives into Ukraine each day to rescue Holocaust survivors so they can be transported across the border and then flown to Israel.

How can I not talk about Stacya, a young Jewish Ukrainian woman we met in Cracow? Stacya traveled with her 5-year-old daughter to Poland because of the Russian bombings. Her husband remained behind, unable to legally leave the country. She is now essentially alone in a foreign country trying to put the pieces of her life back together.

The stories go on and on. Instead of a hodgepodge of thoughts and vignettes, I want to share with you a theme that weaves together so many of my experiences over the past week.

In last week’s parsha, Behar, we read about the mitzvah to financially assist a Jew who is struggling to support himself.

The Torah tells us:

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְְ

If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you,

וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ

you shall support him.

The simple reading of this verse outlines our core value of tzedaka. We are commanded to help the poor and vulnerable. As Rashi notes, the words וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ teach us that we must intercede and help a struggling Jew even before he or she becomes fully destitute.

However, Rav Simcha Bunim Sofer, in his work Shevet Sofer, explains that this verse should be read differently. The phrase:  וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ(and his hand falters beside you) is not referring to the hand of the poor that falters, it is referring to the hand of the Jew with means. Those who are in a position of support must “lower” their hand and stand side by side with the Jew in need.

In other words, the Torah is demanding that we do more than sympathize with someone struggling. We must extend ourselves and empathize with those in need. Their pain should be our pain.

If we can achieve that level of care, then the next phrase וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ (you shall support him) will develop naturally. If we deeply feel for the plight of others, it is only natural to get involved and help alleviate their suffering.

I am going to tweak this beautiful idea just a bit.

I flew to Warsaw with Rav Sofer’s words ringing in my ears!

With Michal’s generous support, I, along with about 20 of my rabbinic colleagues from around the world, traveled to Poland in order to show our brothers and sisters from the Ukraine that we cared. We intended to show solidarity. We intended to give support.

However, at the conclusion of my trip, I have a completely different feeling.

והחזקתי – I was strengthened.

The four days in Poland were inspiring and empowering from three perspectives.

Perspective #1:

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם

Man is beloved for he is created in the image of God.

In Pirkei Avos, our Sages teach us that every human being is endowed with a divine spark. We inhabit one world and we must work together to build it and maintain it.

This point was on full display in Poland.

The sheer force of the human connection that transcended borders, religions and political affiliations was breathtaking.

This hit me when visiting the Medyka border connecting Poland to Ukraine. In the early stages of the war, thousands of refugees were streaming into Poland each day. A pop-up village was soon erected. Organizations from across the globe set up tents offering an array of services, such as medical care and hot meals.

As the depleted Ukrainian refugees crossed into Poland they were (and are) greeted by throngs of people ready to help. There are tents set up as far as the eye can see. Human beings of all colors, races and nationalities rising to the occasion in the face of a brutal war.

This feeling extended well beyond the border. A true sense of humanitarian concern has enveloped many European countries. In Poland, refugees receive free medical care, they can ride public transportation for free, and the government is subsidizing their temporary housing.

One story in particular, really resonated with me.

On Thursday we met with Rabbi Yechiel Levitansky. Rabbi Levitansky is the Chabad emissary in Sumy, Ukraine, which lies on the border with Russia. At the beginning of the war, after spending a few days in the shelter of his home, Rabbi Levitansky and his wife made the difficult decision to pack up their car with their four children and drive 600 miles to safety.

In fact, the Rabbi’s wife told us that this was the only time in her marriage that she saw her husband cry.

After driving for 32 hours straight, the Levitanskys finally crossed into Moldova at 2 a.m. on a Friday morning. They were wrung out like schmattas. On the road, right past the border, there were strangers holding signs such as “Open Apartment Available,” “Free Bedroom at my home,” “Home cooked food waiting.”

The story gets better.

As the family was racing to make it to the Chabad in Moldova before Shabbos, they pulled over to the side of the road to check a map. Suddenly, there was a knock on their car window. Someone noticed their Ukrainian license plate and offered them money in the Moldovan currency. “Here,” said a complete stranger, “you should have some money to spend if you are in our country.” The Levitanskys were blown away.

The sheer depth of our shared human experience was profound.

והחזקתי – I was strengthened.

Perspective #2:

מי כעמך ישראל

Who is like the Jewish People!

All I can say is WOW. There is no nation like the Jewish Nation. At the Medyka border we met with an Israeli organization called Hatzalah Bli Gevulot (Rescuers Without Borders). One of their volunteers, Ayala Smotrich, explained that their organization was founded in Israel to provide immediate assistance in case of a humanitarian crisis.

For example, in 2010, they aided in the relief work in Haiti after the terrible earthquake and were there to assist in the wake of the tsunami back in 2004.

This year, Hatzalah Bli Gevulot arrived at the Medyka border within days of the outbreak of the war with Russia. They set up a tent and began offering free medical care before any other country had arrived. They were there assisting refugees even before the Polish government sent assistance.

I was proud to deliver three suitcases filled with supplies to Ayala. I thank everyone who contributed to this cause. Ayala was grateful on behalf of her organization.

I want to highlight something that I only know, having physically traveled to the border.

Remember how I described the refugee camp—scores of tents lining the passageway in Poland? The refugees literally walk through a large green steel gate and enter into Poland. The very first tent is the Israeli tent offering assistance. In fact, besides a few small Polish flags, the first large flag waving in the wind is the blue and white flag with the Magen David!

I cannot describe the pride my colleagues and I felt at the border. The Jewish Agency also set up a tent a few doors down from the Hatzalah tent. The Israeli volunteer from The Jewish Agency proudly told us that over 22,000 Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have made aliyah since the war in Russia began.

In the relative calm of the 21st century, we forget how fortunate and blessed we are that the State of Israel is a refuge for all who need her. Israelis are ready to take us home. Anywhere and always.

That feeling of pride continued the next day when we visited Cracow.

We visited the JCC in Cracow and we saw how hundreds of Ukrainian women and children, both Jewish and non-Jewish, patiently stood outside waiting to be allowed into the JCC store, which provides free food and clothing to any refugee, regardless of their religion.

The JCC is spending upward of $10,000 each day feeding and clothing people they have no relationship with and likely will not see again after the crisis is over. However, the JCC leadership decided it is their mandate to provide help because that is the Jewish way.

We spoke to one non-Jewish woman, Anita, who had tears in her eyes as she expressed gratitude for what the Jewish community has been doing for her family during this difficult time.

We handed out lollipops and candy to the children as they waited patiently on the line to enter the store. After all, who doesn’t like a little sweet while schlepping through a long line?

והחזקתי – I was strengthened.

The third and final perspective can be summarized in three words: עם ישראל חי!

The Jewish People live on.

Our trip started with a short trip to the Oneg Shabbos archives. Oneg Shabbos was a secret organization led by Emmanuel Ringelblum that carefully documented life in the Warsaw Ghetto. The documents were ultimately buried in milk canisters and metal boxes and these treasure troves were unearthed after the war.

The archives display original documents which depict firsthand the terrible conditions of the ghetto and the brutal viciousness of the Nazis.

The contrast between Ringelblum’s clandestine work documenting the Holocaust and Ayala Smotrich’s work aiding the refugees as the Israeli flag waves behind her, could not be starker.

This contrast was felt again on Wednesday night when we traveled deep into the Otwock forest outside Warsaw to join the Warsaw Jewish community and the Jewish Ukrainian refugees who gathered at a campsite for a Lag B’Omer bonfire and barbecue. One of my colleagues strummed on the guitar and we all sang “Am Yisrael Chai.”

As the fire was burning and we were singing about the eternity of the Jewish People, I took a mental note of what was possibly happening in the spot 75 years ago.

Were the Nazis shooting at the Jews after forcing them to dig their own graves?

Were the Partisans hiding in silence to evade capture as the Nazi patrolled the area?

But now, 75 years later, a group of 20-plus rabbis, and scores of Polish and Ukrainian Jews, were singing “Am Yisrael Chai”!

I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain’s famous essay on the Jews:

“The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished…

“The Jew saw them all, survived them all … all things are mortal but the Jews…”

Did I return tired? Yes.

Am I jet-lagged? Yes.

Was it worth the trip? Absolutely!

A journey which began with a mission to deliver sympathy and solidarity turned out to be a mission filled with strength and vitality.

I returned invigorated by my belief in our collective humanity.

I returned deeply proud of our People and the State of Israel.

I returned filled with optimism that no matter what awaits us in this topsy-turvy world, the Jewish People, with the help of the Almighty, will not only survive but we will thrive.

Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi of Young Israel of Fort Lee. He is also a rebbe at Bruriah High School for Girls and the current president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

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