April 17, 2024
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Relief Missions for Ukraine: NNJ Federation and Rabbinic Mission Visit Poland/Ukraine Border

Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, joined a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) professional and lay leadership mission to the Poland/Ukraine border last week. While he was there, Shames met with members of another grassroots mission, organized through the JCC in Krakow, which was led locally by Rabbi Chaim Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanuel, with a group of 11 congregants. They brought 150 duffle bags filled with supplies for the refugees, donated by Northern New Jersey residents.

“The visit shook me to the core,” said Shames. Along with a delegation of federation professionals and volunteer leaders from across the country, Shames met with Polish Jewish leaders, spoke with refugees and saw firsthand the work of the relief agencies that partner with JFNNJ and JFNA. More than $700,000 has been raised locally by the community, and it was important for Shames to be a steward for those funds and ensure they were allocated appropriately.

Shames spoke of seeing streams of refugees, mostly women and children, as the men aged 20 to 60 were detained in Ukraine. The women and children were crossing the border, clutching hands tightly. Their baggage consisted of one small suitcase or duffle bag of personal items that they threw together quickly. They traveled by train, bus or on foot for days to make their way to safe border crossings. Shames said: “The looks of fear, despair, sadness and anger were evident in all the faces, young and old. You could actually feel their sense of hopelessness and lack of direction as they followed the hordes flowing into the many refugee stations set up along the border with Ukraine and Poland.”

A ray of light in the devastation was watching the faces of the refugees light up as they crossed the border to see the Israeli flag aloft and volunteers from the Federation’s partner agencies, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), handing out packages of food, clothing and medicines so direly needed, said Shames. In addition to the work of these agencies, Israel has set up a huge field hospital in Western Ukraine operated by Sheba Medical Center that is treating hundreds of patients per day. The bulk of the medical assistance at the moment is in the area of mental health due to displacement trauma and family separation. Six mega-generators were donated by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Lviv, guaranteeing a steady supply of electricity to hospitals and other vital civilian buildings.

Shames and his group witnessed firsthand how Israel is in the process of absorbing thousands of Jewish olim as well as offering refugee and humanitarian assistance to non-Jewish Ukrainian nationals who will remain in Israel until the situation in Ukraine settles down. To date, of the over 3 million refugees who have fled Ukraine, 30-40% have opted to go to Israel and are being assisted around the clock by a delegation of Jewish Agency representatives to expedite their aliyah to Israel.

Shames personally brought four overstuffed duffle bags and small suitcases filled with supplies of socks, underwear, hats, gloves and hygienic supplies. In addition, JFNNJ distributed $400,000 in donations from over 1,000 donors in Northern New Jersey, with the rest on its way. These monies are part of the over $40 million raised by close to 150 federations throughout the country to aid the Ukrainian refugees.

When asked what assistance is needed most, Shames noted that monetary donations are still the best source of help. As Rabbi Michael Shudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, shared with him, the cost of providing Passover Seders for thousands will be astronomical. A donation for one refugee’s Seder will cost approximately $50, and you can sponsor one or more at this link: http://jfnnj.org/seder.

A second delegation from Northern New Jersey, coinciding with Shames’ mission (and they met up during their time in Poland) was a grassroots one organized by Rabbi Poupko of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood and Rabbi Kirshner of Temple Emanuel in Closter. Rabbi Poupko shared: “Though only a small number of people from our congregations joined us on this mission, we thank the community for its outpouring of supplies and funds in response to our request. Together with supplies collected by Temple Emanuel, we traveled with 122 duffle bags of basic necessities.”

Rabbi Kirshner said that just checking in all the bags at Newark Airport turned out to be an enormous effort. “We arrived three-and-a-half hours early in Newark because we needed extra time to process the 122 bags we sent down as checked luggage. Lufthansa and their team in Newark were amazing. First of all, they gave us 50 bags to check for free, which is about 30 more than we as a group were allotted. Then the additional bags were charged a single, flat rate that was only 25% of the usual costs. It saved us thousands of dollars! When the crew saw the bags and learned what they were for, they welled up with tears. It caused our plane to be a little late on takeoff, but for good reason.”

Rabbi Poupko noted his pride in the Jewish solidarity exhibited between JFNNJ, the JCCs and the members of Ahavath Torah and Temple Emanuel, which was so beautifully conveyed recently by Natan Sharansky. Sharanksky said that when he was growing up in Ukraine, “having the word ‘Jew’ on your ID papers was as if you had a disease. Now, we live in a society far different. For those escaping Ukraine, there is only one word that assures that someone will be on the other side of the border to help and that is ‘Jew.’”

Upon arrival in Poland, the Poupko/Kirshner delegation went directly to the JCC in Krakow where they met Jonathan Ornstein, who has been involved in the massive relief effort from the beginning. Ornstein informed the group that their supplies would be shared with a border town in Ukraine called Mykolaiv which is sheltering thousands daily. Ornstein then introduced the group to Anna, a volunteer from Kyiv. She and her family were living a comfortable life until they were alerted to leave quickly on February 24. With her two children in tow, she spent 12 hours getting to the border and another 48 hours on line to cross the border. Finally settling in, she decided to volunteer at the JCC in appreciation for all the help they provided her. In speaking with Anna, Ornstein discovered that her great-grandmother had hidden a Jewish family for three years during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Kirshner reported that their group also met with Rabbi Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. “We learned about the ‘What-now-and-what-next’ scenario. Rabbi Schudrich explained that as soon as the war broke out a crisis management system among all of the Polish Jewish network agencies was established. They were all flummoxed since it was the first time in 80 years that the Jews of Poland were not the ‘crisis’ and were part of the ‘management,’” he explained.

The group’s final day was spent in Warsaw where they saw the work of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli consular officials as they helped the refugees emigrate to Israel. Rabbi Poupko was inspired at what he saw and commented: “As these refugees were speaking to us in Ukrainian and Russian, I realized something remarkable about this scene. As they were speaking, the Jewish Agency officials were translating for them since each of the officials was an oleh from the former Soviet Union, Russia or Ukraine. Here we have Jewish immigrants living in Israel, working to assist fellow Jews and others from their own countries of origin.

“Integrating olim from the FSU into Israeli society faced some serious obstacles in the past,” Rabbi Poupko continued. “But to see how far they have come and how they are assisting their ‘landsmen’ was truly inspiring. Some of these officials were themselves forced to flee Ukraine and here they are helping their fellow Ukrainian Jews.”

Seeing the overwhelming help needed for the hordes of refugees, Rabbi Poupko, Rabbi Kirshner and his group were pondering the effects of their small efforts. But to buoy their spirits, they referred to the Mishna in Pirkei Avot which assures us, “Rabbi Tarfon would say: ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.’”

To donate to the Ukraine effort through the Jewish Federation go to www.jfnnj.org/ukraine  or http://jfnnj.org/seder.

To donate through Congregation Ahavat Torah go to www.ahavathtorah.org/dedicating and select Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.

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