As heartbreaking, inspiring, and complicated as it was to visit the Poland-Ukraine border this past week, what was most painful was not anything I saw, but what I knew I was not seeing. The Ukrainians we met were, after all, the lucky ones – the ones who got out, who were able to get into Poland. However hard it was for me and my rabbinic colleagues to see the desperation, dislocation, and misery of the refugees, we knew – we all know – that the suffering on the other side of the border is far worse. The rape of a nation, the indiscriminate bombings, the intentional targeting of Ukrainian civilian populations. Moved as we were by what we saw, it all came with the throbbing understanding that elsewhere things were much worse and only getting worse and worse.
The forty-eight-hour mission was organized and funded by UJA-Federation of New York. Eighteen New York synagogue rabbis called on to see the crisis with our own eyes, in order that we should return to bear witness, to amplify the message in our home communities and share word of the life-saving work of UJA-funded agencies like the JDC, the Jewish Agency, and so many others – and yes – to encourage you to give generously towards their sacred work. Many of you have already given directly to the agencies on the ground. Many of you have given through the synagogue’s Purim drive. Park Avenue Synagogue has raised just over three-quarters of our one-million-dollar goal – a goal that, with your text, email, or online commitments, I hope we reach either by the end of the weekend or, as I discovered possible when I kicked off the drive two weeks ago in a sermon, by the end of Adon Olam.
Imagine, if you will, a school gymnasium, such as we saw after Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, filled with rows and rows of cots occupied by people displaced from their homes. Now imagine several football fields of such cot-filled expanses. That is what I saw when we were in Przemysl, a small town in Southeastern Poland presently receiving a small portion of the now nearly two million refugees in Poland. For the purposes of today, the refugees from Ukraine can be divided into three categories. First, refugees with the financial means to go onto booking.com and find temporary residence or with familial connections to travel to relatives wherever they may be. On our return flight home by way of Amsterdam, the passengers broke into applause when the pilot announced that there were Ukrainians on our flight en route to safe haven. The second and smallest group, to which I will return, are Jewish or Jewish-adjacent Ukrainian refugees, the ones emigrating to Israel by way of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The third and largest group is the huddled mass seeking refuge in humanitarian aid centers like the one we visited. I could not help but notice the demographic make-up of the refugees – almost entirely women and children. The men, we know, are all back in Ukraine. They came with next to nothing – no baggage, just lots and lots of strollers. I will not soon forget – and I am jumping ahead – the site of a woman crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland with a Polish soldier holding her limp child in his arms.
We spoke to the mayor of Przemysl, who shared with us the need for psycho-social support, the need for translators, the need for work permits, the need to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation. We met with the medics supplying relief, speaking to volunteers from NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief, an Israeli all-volunteer nonprofit NGO that helps people around the world in the wake of natural and human-made disasters. Doctors and nurses working hand in hand with the Red Cross – addressing chronic health needs, flu, GI issues, the disorientation of the elderly, Covid, and, when necessary, evacuating refugees to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. On the day of our visit, the weather was mild enough. A week earlier it had been icy cold and six people had died of hypothermia. Our group dropped off bags and bags of vital humanitarian and medical supplies prepared by volunteers from Afya, a UJA-funded relief organization. On April 1, volunteers from Park Avenue Synagogue will be volunteering at the Afya warehouse in Yonkers to pack medical supplies to be airlifted. (You may add your name to a waitlist to join the group.)
When we stopped at the Przemysl train station, we saw refugees arriving and we bumped into Jonathan Ornstein, the director of JCC Krakow. Jonathan explained that refugees are going wherever they can – some to humanitarian centers in Poland, Moldova, Romania, and elsewhere, some to big cities like Warsaw, a city that has grown by 200,000 in the past few weeks, and some to Krakow, where agencies like JCC Krakow have transformed overnight from a JCC for the Jewish community to a refugee center for all of humanity. Throughout our trip this theme was repeated – the pivoting of Jewish organizations in the face of crisis. The largest city near the Polish-Ukraine border is Lublin, where we had dinner in a place called the Hotel Ilan. Before the Holocaust, the hotel housed one of the most prestigious rabbinical school schools in the world, Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, the yeshiva where daf yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud, began. In the last few weeks, the hotel has been transformed into a JDC-funded relief center, its rooms filled with refugees, its basement filled with much-needed supplies. As our group davened ma’ariv/the evening service in the yeshiva, I could feel the reverberations of history. The one-time high seat of Jewish learning, gutted by the Nazis in the Shoah, transformed post-war into a Jewish hotel, presently serving as a JDC-funded relief center for anyone in need.
When we arrived at the border itself, we were told it was much quieter than the week before, though with the Russian bombing of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv the day before, there was definitely a steady flow of refugees. Every humanitarian relief agency was represented at the border from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Sikhs to Caritas to the IRC to Chabad to private Polish citizens doing what they can. The Poles have responded to Ukrainian refugees with extraordinary – some would say, uncharacteristic – hospitality. Why the Poles have received the Ukrainians but not the Syrian refugees on their Belarus border is a topic beyond the scope of this sermon. As Americans we need only look in our own mirror to know that borders do not merely mark boundaries between nations, but also accentuate the line where empathy for and fear of “the other” clash. It was inspiring to see, if one can say such a thing, that the biggest tent, closest to the border crossing, was that of UJA-funded Hatzolah Lelo Gvulot, Rescuers Without Frontiers. What an amazing thing that the first flag a Ukrainian refugee sees when they cross into Poland is an Israeli one. We spoke briefly to Aryeh, the Israeli doctor in charge. Someone had asked him whether any distinction is made in the treatment and care he provides to Ukrainian Jews as compared to non-Jews. “Eighty years ago,” he responded to us in Hebrew, “Selections were made between Jews and non-Jews – I will have no part of that today.” NATAN, Hatzolah, Afya, JDC, JCC Krakow, and beyond – it was inspiring to see, in the face of the heartache, the countless acts of hesed/compassion being performed by Jewish organizations toward Jew and non-Jew alike.
Inspiring as it was, for a Jew it was also complicated. As we traveled through the subcarpathian mountains, I was well-aware of history being turned on its head. I stared out at the forests, knowing that not so long ago, Jews hid in those same forests of southeastern Poland where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were murdered. As I wrote this sermon, I flipped through my pictures and noticed that I had taken a picture of a nondescript Polish train track, a picture as odd as it is understandable given where we were. The hotel where we stayed in Lublin was just blocks away from the site of the Majdanek concentration camp, which now consists of an ash-filled mausoleum. When we passed through the border town of Medica, we literally crawled through a fence into the ruins of the community’s synagogue – a community whose every member had been dragged by the Nazis and their collaborators into a nearby park and shot dead. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not a Jewish story, but I experienced my time in Poland through the prism of my Jewish identity. More Jewish blood has been spilled in Ukraine and Poland than anywhere else in the world. And even post-war and in the present, Jewish president notwithstanding, the hot embers of antisemitism in that area have not entirely cooled. What exactly makes me a stakeholder in this story, given the recent and not-so-recent reception of my people in this region? What would my predecessors think of the Jewish obligation to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland? Turning over in their graves may be too strong, but to say that it is complicated, at the very least, extends the courtesy of being honest about the emotions involved.
And while all Jews may feel this complexity, it is felt most acutely by the Jewish state. As we listened to several officials, I thought about the criticism being leveled at Israel for taking in only a few thousand non-Jewish refugees, criticism emanating from people in countries such as our own that remain effectively closed to any refugees at all. I thought about the tightrope Israel is walking and all those folks taking potshots at Israel from the cheap seats, insisting that Israel take a tougher stand against Russia, not realizing that Israel, by way of Syria, effectively shares a border with Russia. I thought about how Israel’s ability to take care of its business against Hezbollah in the north depends on good relations with Russia. How a nuclear deal with Iran depends on cooperation with Russia. How there is far more that we don’t know than we do know about what is at stake here for Israel – save only that Israel’s Orthodox Prime Minister was willing to openly break Shabbat and travel to Russia in order to save lives. I thought about all this, and I have decided that, whatever questions I may have, at this moment in time I choose to judge Israel’s actions generously, as I would advise us all to do.
Because if you haven’t quite put the pieces together, let me spell it out for you. Israel must walk a narrow bridge not just because of the Iran deal or the northern border with Syria or even because of the Jews of Ukraine. Israel must be cautious out of consideration for the Jews of Russia. Make no mistake, the Iron Curtain has once again fallen on Russia and the Russian Jewish community. In an authoritarian regime in which freedom of expression is denied, in which people are labeled either patriots or enemies of the state, in which the only flights out are through Turkey or Uzbekistan, the Russian Jewish community is presently frightened and vulnerable. The next chapter of the Jews of Silence is being written in real time. In all our moral outrage, before we all go to the mattresses, let’s just pause a beat to remember that there is a Jewish community as large if not larger than Ukrainian Jewry which is effectively being held hostage right now. It is complicated. Bad as things are – and they are, make no mistake – they can get much, much worse.
The trip was not an easy one; it was heartbreaking. The only moment of levity I can think of was when we made a pit stop at a McDonald’s and I insisted on taking a selfie with the Orthodox rabbis with the Golden Arches behind me as I explained to them what a Happy Meal is. But I was also inspired. Inspired to meet the young adults of Warsaw’s Moishe House community, who had directed all their Purim tzedakah toward volunteering at the border, feeding the hungry, and, in some cases, taking in refugees under their own roof. I was inspired by the grassroots efforts of so many relief agencies on the ground – Jewish agencies and agencies funded by UJA – and I am convinced more than ever that their efforts are quite literally saving lives. And I am grateful, beyond words, to live in a time, when through the efforts of the Jewish Agency, a Jew fleeing Ukraine can make aliyah, emigrate to Israel, and live in a sovereign Jewish state.
Indeed, the final site-visit of our trip was not at the border, but just blocks away from our Warsaw hotel on the morning of our departure. At 6:00 AM, our group was invited to walk to another hotel where Ukrainian Jewish refugees were boarding a bus in order to board a plane and make aliyah to Israel. A few of us went to help with their bags, wish them well, and bless them on their journey. We saw their exhaustion, we felt their fear of the unknown, and we sensed their angst as they separated from their husbands and fathers and sons not knowing when they would see them again. In all the emotion and commotion, the extraordinary lead staffer from the Jewish Agency, Daniela, pulled me aside and discreetly motioned to a woman in her thirties and her school-age daughter and whispered to me in Hebrew, “Rabbi, those two, they are not Jewish.” I gave her a puzzled look. She explained. They are the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of righteous gentiles, non-Jews who eighty years ago helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Acknowledged as such by Yad Vashem, a righteous gentile is extended the same right of immigration to Israel as any Jew. Daniela explained that this woman’s Jewish neighbors in Ukraine knew of her pedigree and made sure that she knew that Israel was there not just for them, but for her and her daughter.
And I stood there bleary and teary-eyed thinking of the heartbreaking and complicated and beautiful world in which we live. A world in which a gentile Ukrainian woman can be saved by her Jewish neighbors and airlifted to the sovereign state of Israel on account of the life-saving deeds of kindness performed by her grandparents generations ago. And in that moment, what was all so complicated suddenly became less so. I stepped forward, motioned to ask her if she needed help with her luggage, and she softly smiled and nodded yes. I carried her luggage to the bus, we took a selfie together, and I gave her a hug as she climbed onto the bus to the airport.
For some it might be carrying a bag, for others volunteering to pack medical supplies, for others getting engaged politically, and still others writing a check. We must each do what we can, knowing that doing nothing is not an option. What is complicated need not be so. It is only human to have questions, but we dare not let those questions prevent us from alleviating human suffering. Lest we forget, the name of our parashah is Tzav, meaning “command.” Rashi explains that the word denotes the quality of zerizut, acting with alacrity in matters of tzedakah, of justice and giving. As have Jews and non-Jews in the past, so too in the present. We step up and rise to the urgency of the hour, doing what we can to ease the suffering and bring much needed relief to an afflicted humanity.