April 21, 2024
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April 21, 2024
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My Time in Vienna Helping Ukrainian Refugees

Editor’s note: YU student Shoshana Rockoff was part of the recent mission to Vienna with Yeshiva University, to assist and support the 500 Jewish refugees who arrived from Ukraine.

It was 1 pm on a Friday afternoon when I closed Yeshiva University’s zoom call informing us of everything we could possibly bring to Vienna for the Ukrainian refugees. It was crunch time, and we, the student volunteers, had until Shabbos and a little bit of Sunday to gather toys, games, costumes, crafts, Judaica, technology and medicines for the refugees. I was in Cleveland for a teaching fellowship at the time and racked my brain as to how I could fill one duffle bag by Sunday. I drafted up a text to send around to a few communal group chats, and asked one of my siblings to put a small box outside my front door to gather donations. Doubtful as to how this method of collection would fill even half a duffle bag, I sent out another text to the community in Cleveland informing them of my mission as well.

What unfolded from the click of a button in Cleveland, OH exceeded all of my expectations. Within minutes of sending out the text, my phone exploded with messages about different kinds of donations, as well as invitations by store owners to come to their warehouses and take what was necessary for the refugees. My siblings texted me around the clock that the box outside my house was overflowing and needed to be taken in every few minutes. Schools in the community started mobilizing drives where students gathered around sorting, packaging and labeling duffle bags. I had to halt donations in Cleveland because I didn’t have enough luggage space to bring everything back to New York.

I came home to a house covered in donations, and my expectation of a mere half-filled duffle bag was beautifully proven wrong; there ended up being around 50 duffle bags filled with goods for refugees halfway across the world. We couldn’t even fit all of the duffle bags in our car, and needed the help of extended family to make shifts loading and unloading duffle bags from donation sites. I was able to bring a significant amount of the duffles to Vienna, and we are working on getting the rest of them out to other refugee missions. Almost two weeks later, I’m still amazed at how quickly people rose to the occasion.

Witnessing the donation turnover was almost as impactful as the trip that followed. I saw firsthand the great lengths that people will go to in order to help another person in need. There is no nation like Am Yisrael, and this was my first taste of that on this mission. It also taught me that it is crucial to never underestimate what you are capable of achieving and making happen. From the click of a button and a few phone calls in Cleveland, OH, drives were started, people were mobilized and donation boxes were filled. A day earlier I never could have dreamed that this would be possible.

Even before my trip, which in its own right was so impactful, I was changed by this community, a community that I am so proud to be a part of. Even more so, I am humbled by our community’s willingness to help without fully grasping where our help was going. Many of us have written letters to soldiers or packed food packages for a family in need, but we don’t get to see the look on their faces as they read those letters or open those packages. It is the ultimate chessed to send without complete knowledge of the destination, but every so often it can give people a little boost to see where the fruits of their labor are headed. As someone who had the special privilege of seeing where your donations ended up, I would love to share some highlights, lessons and pictures from my experiences in Vienna. Words are limiting, but I will try as best as I can to share with you all what I learned this past week about the resilience and kindness of humanity, the ability to change lives and worlds, and the unique connection of the Jewish people.

Real People, Real Stories

Before this trip, when I heard the words “Ukrainian refugees,” I pictured tears and the blurry faces of people miles away. After this mission, I can say that I now picture Avital, Leora, Gabi, Adele, Emily and Chaya Malka, a few of the many people I had the privilege of forming connections with.

Although we didn’t speak the same language, broken Hebrew was common ground in order to connect with one another; for those who didn’t speak Hebrew at all, hand motions and gestures were key. Despite language and cultural barriers, I felt really connected to each person I met. Perhaps I even connected to them more deeply because I had to put in so much effort to form a bond without relying on words alone.

Avital, a 10 year old girl who escaped Ukraine with her pregnant mother and four sisters, is strong willed and developed an entourage of 10 year old friends and fellow refugees who followed her wherever she went. Leora has such a chein to her, and although a little timid and shy, she insisted that I find her a bunny costume for Purim amongst the plethora of donations (which BH we found in no time thanks to you guys). Gabi loves candy, and everywhere she goes she wears her sparkly wheely sneakers that the other kids admire. Adele is Gabi’s older sister and she clearly makes it her responsibility to help her mother look out for her younger siblings. Emily has the most contagious laugh and was insistent on keeping her Purim costume a surprise from the other children (she ended up being a cheerleader). Chaya Malka, who made peace signs in every selfie we took, doesn’t speak Hebrew but would laugh hysterically when I misunderstood her hand gestures.

When we arrived in Vienna our first mission was to sort and organize the bags full of donations that we had brought for the refugees (from you!!). Dispersed amongst the clothes, toys, games and technology were letters written by American children to give to the Ukrainian children. That night after eating dinner with the refugees, Leora and I sat down to color together. I was brought back to my own home where I had sat with my own sister Leora just a day before while she colored cards for the Ukrainian children. The contrast between the lives of these two Leoras was striking. My Leora lives in a comfortable and happy home and neighborhood; this little girl Leora had just run away from her home and everything she ever knew. My Leora has friends who also dressed as cheerleaders for Purim and who also wear sparkly wheely sneakers, but her friends drew the “thinking of you cards” while the Ukrainian children who dressed as cheerleaders and wore cool sneakers received them. Leora’s sister even asked me “what hotel I’m living in now”. For them, abnormality has become the new normal. Ukrainian Leora should be experiencing all the same childhood experiences that my Leora and her friends in America are experiencing. Ukrainian Leora, however, has seen things that no child should see and is coloring a little bit of a different picture.

Using the toys, games, markers and crayons that you all provided enabled us to imbue some sense of normalcy to these childrens’ lives. It was beautiful to see these children play with toys, games and costumes and watch them dance, color and dress up just like any other kid. I hope you can all catch a glimpse of what you were able to accomplish with your generosity.

Purim

Using all of your costume donations, we set up a “Purim pop up shop” where all of the children could choose whatever they liked. I will never forget the look on these childrens’ faces as they walked around the Purim party in their Purim costumes. I had watched those very costumes travel from attics in America, to a bin at my front door, into a duffle bag and then flown overseas to Austria. They were peoples’ “purim themes” from years ago, that costume in the basement that no one had looked at or thought about in years. To these refugees, however, these costumes were light in the darkest of times. They made little girls feel like princesses and little boys feel like policemen. I can’t begin to express the joy of bending down to place a crown on a girl’s head who just days before had to flee her home in Ukraine. In that moment I was also reminded of how much unnecessary stuff we have. How many of us even remembered those crowns lying on the bottom of our dress-up bins? Many of us are lucky to own so much “stuff”, stuff that we think of as a burden, stuff that simply sits and waits to be cleared out before Pesach. This “stuff” that can seem so miniscule to us holds the ability to provide an infinite amount of joy to somebody else. If we changed our mindset to think that way about every single thing we owned, we’d be running to all corners of the earth to spread this wealth.

I learned an important lesson in that moment about attempting to grasp just how meaningful our possessions can be to others, and therefore how impactful putting proper effort into the things that we give can be. So often when we give donations the people we are giving to feel so far away. I hear “Ukrainian refugees”, think of it in generally sad terms, and then proceed to look for the sweatshirt in the back of my closet that I haven’t worn in years, or the old costume that I forgot was in the dress up bin. While I unpacked donations, certain donations stood out to me for their dedication and mindfulness of the destination. I honestly nearly cried when I unpacked around 30 ziplock bags with individually wrapped friendship bracelets, directions printed for each child on how to make the bracelets and the exact number of strings needed for each child. Then I opened another bag filled with ingredients to make graggers, with barley, popsicle sticks and directions printed in Ukrainian. I immediately became so excited about bringing these crafts to the kids. Actually getting to spend time with them as they received these donations showed me how important it is that these donations are given wholly and with dignity.

At the Purim party, as we twirled Cinderella, put Spiderman on our shoulders and gave lollipops to Mickey Mouse, I heard laughter erupt, saw eyes light up and worlds transform. The ecstasy was palpable and beautifully contagious. I saw adults, who had previously looked so solemn and down, laughing and dancing with us and their children. A mother stopped me in the elevator and in broken English explained to me that when she was fleeing Ukraine, the last thing on her limited packing list were costumes for her kids. With tears in her eyes, she explained how happy and excited her children were to dress up, and told me that that night was the first time she had seen her children smile in weeks.

I learned a profound lesson that night about the human experience. Life begs for food, shelter and clothing in order to survive, but it demands happiness, joy, satisfaction and fulfillment in order to thrive. These refugees were, understandably, singularly focused on leaving their country and finding food, clothing and somewhere to live. We were able to give them that dose of happiness that enhances life, enriches it and makes it more meaningful. The part of life that isn’t deemed warranted but is still demanded.

Am Yisrael

The sentence that keeps mulling over in my mind this past week is: “American Jews flew out to help Vienneese Jews help Ukrainian Jews.” That is not just three different countries, but three different languages, nationalities, cultures and walks of life. Imagine any other group of random people from these countries joining together in a mixture of English, German and Ukrainian. It would be nothing short of a balagan. The primary way of communicating and connecting three distinct worlds amongst Jewish people was with the Hebrew language. Even if none of us spoke it perfectly, it was the conduit to forming bonds and connections.

At dinner, some of the YU boys broke out into the song “Hamalach hagoel” and slowly but surely, American Jews, Vieneese Jews and Ukrainian Jews dragged their chairs into the center of the room and started singing together. We all knew the words to the bracha that Yaakov gave to Ephraim and Menashe thousands of years ago, and we continued on to sing “vihaikar lo lefached.” As we sang this song in particular, I watched refugees close their eyes, surely picturing the scary times that they are currently experiencing; the song must have felt so real, timely and relevant to them. I closed my eyes as well and felt the shared pain in that moment with the refugees, but also the shared history of all of us in that circle, regardless of language or country. That song has been necessary to us as a people all throughout Jewish History; reminding us never to fear and to stay strong no matter what trial attempts to bring us down. We could barely carry conversations with one another, but song has the power to shatter walls, break down barriers and show that we aren’t that different after all. A Jew is a Jew and we all know the same songs and long for the same things. We ended with “l’shana haba b’yerushalayim”, a song which felt more pertinent than ever.

On our last Friday in Vienna, our group had the opportunity to meet with the Austrian President of Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka. Right outside of the room we were sitting in was the balcony that Hitler stood on when he conquered Austria and watched as thousands of Austrians cheered him and his terrorizing mission. It was a unique experience to be in sight of that balcony on a very different kind of mission, a mission driven by kindness instead of hatred. Sobotka is a unique individual who himself is the grandson of a Nazi and says he devotes his life to serving as a pro-semitic voice in Europe today. President Berman of Yeshiva University gave a speech in that room that I will never forget. He told Sobotka, the grandson of a Nazi, to look around the room at a group of 27 Jewish students, all of whom’s grandparents or great grandparents survived the Holocaust. President Berman explained that this meeting of people represents the desire to move history forward, to change the world for the better. No more hate, no more putting people down, no more destroying peoples’ lives and worlds. I felt in that moment that we were representing what Am Yisrael stands for in this world. We showed the deep understanding that us Jews know better than anyone else that we cannot and will not stand on the sidelines of time while other people suffer. Sometimes it is when the world is filled with injustice and darkness that goodness and light shine all the brighter.

Impact

It was only one week, but time never correlates with impact and connection. As I said goodbye to each child, I bent down to their eye level and explained in broken Hebrew, “now it is time for me to go on a plane back to America, and I will miss you very much. I hope one day we can see each other again soon.” They responded with hugs that were so tight, my heart swelled. In my mind though, I wondered, would I ever see them again? I knew Avital’s family was headed to Germany the next day, another family to Boro Park and another to Yerushalyim.

It’s crazy to think how closely our paths can cross with others before we all have to head off on our different journeys. Some people meet again and many don’t. People may enter our lives for an hour, a day, a year, or a season, and we need to remember that the imprints left behind are strong, that they stay with both parties long after the meeting is gone. The tightness of our hugs with these children told me that. So while it’s true that I may never see a lot of these people again, I know I will never forget Avital’s strong willed nature, Leora’s drawings and bunny costume, Gabi’s sparkly wheely sneakers, Adele’s commitment to family, Emily’s contagious laugh and Chaya Malka’s dedication to those peace signs.

Thank you

One of my fellow students in Vienna shared a story about how they were sitting across from a refugee at dinner and the man didn’t speak a word of English or Hebrew. The meal was slightly uncomfortable, the man kept repeating a word in Ukrainian and my friend had absolutely no idea what he was saying. After a long meal, my friend finally pulled out Google Translate and asked the man to repeat what he had been continually saying into the phone. The Ukrainian word translated into English as “Thank you.” That man was thanking us, and thanking all of you, for changing his world during the most dire of times.

Although words are certainly limiting, I hope I was able to give you all a little taste of where your kindness was headed. I hope that as a community we can continue to remember how fortunate we are to have so much, and how many people in this world can reap joy from the smallest of things that we give with love and care.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for helping me help others. Thank you for expanding your hearts and giving to people struggling halfway across the globe. Your donations, your consideration and your kindness served as fuel for a week devoted to changing the world for the better. The google translate “thank you”, the mother who stopped me in the elevator, the children’s hugs – these were all for you too. I hope that as a community we never forget that a text can start a donation drive, a costume can brighten a child’s year, a box of crayons can bring a sense of normalcy to the abnormal, a song can break down walls and barriers, and a single week can change lives.

Thank you for enabling us to make a change, be changed and for setting the stage for future change in this world.


The Viennese Jewish community of 8,500 has taken in over 500 refugees and is expecting another 500 refugees in the coming week and a half. The community is taking care of housing, meals, medical expenses, schooling, job training and anything they can do to assist Ukrainian Jews, costing them around 100,000 dollars a week. The link to donate to help Jews worldwide is below. Tizku l’mitzvot!!Www.yu.edu/feedrefugees

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