As war rages in Ukraine, another visit with the helpers
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As war rages in Ukraine, another visit with the helpers

Leaders of Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation report on mission to Poland

A Jewish agency volunteer teaches dance to refugee children at a Jewish Agency hotel in Warsaw.
A Jewish agency volunteer teaches dance to refugee children at a Jewish Agency hotel in Warsaw.

Ari Rosenblum came back from Poland more impressed than ever by the work being done by the Jewish federation system. “Nobody is as effective as the Jewish organizations and the Israelis,” he said.

Mr. Rosenblum is the CEO of Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County. He and Lisa Green of West Nyack, a past president of the Rockland federation, went to Poland last week as part of a mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.

The trip, one of four missions that the JFNA — the umbrella group that represents local federations — has run so far, highlighted the emergency operations that Jewish organizations have been running. So far, Jewish groups’ emergency fundraising drive have brought in more than $43 million.

The whirlwind trip — the group landed on Tuesday morning and left on Thursday night — took them to Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, and to the towns of Medyka and Przemyśl, near the Ukrainian border.

The stories the refugees told the U.S. visitors were heartbreaking.

“We heard from a family from Mariupol,” Ms. Green said. “They had their house bombed and then they made their way to their grandmother’s house and stayed there a couple of days. Because their grandmother couldn’t run to the shelter, they had to stay there all night while listening to the bombs. The teenage son — about 16 — said he reached for his tefillin and said prayers to help calm down. Then they went back to what was left of their house. They didn’t have any heat or electricity or water. They had to eat outside for a couple of days. Eventually they were relocated by the Russian government. They were lucky, in a sense, that the husband was with them. They made their way to St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to Estonia, then to Warsaw. The little boy, about 10, was very emotional. He had to leave his dog behind.

“He was clearly very traumatized,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “It was really quite heartbreaking to watch. His mother was holding his hand throughout.”

They also met a young woman from Kharkiv, who was caring for her bedridden elderly uncle and was trying to get him out.

“Kharkiv came under massive bombardment,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “Meanwhile, he’s not on his medication. They carry him to a car and lie him on the back seat. They run a gauntlet. The Russians are shelling people leaving. They have to leap out of the car and hide in the fields. They do this and get him to the border,” which is a 16 hour, 750 mile drive. “They get him into a Polish hospital. Unfortunately, five days after he got to Poland, he passed away. It’s tragic. His niece is going to Israel.”

From right, Ari Rosenblum and Lisa Green stand with volunteer doctors from the Jewish Agency and Sauvetures Sans Frontieres.

At the border crossing in Medyka, they met a young man named Sergei, who was working with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“He was from the Ukraine and had moved to Israel as a kid,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “After the army, he went to work for the Jewish Agency.”

When the war broke out, he told his boss that he had to go to Ukraine to help. His boss said: “We’ve already decided to send you.”

The visitors from Rockland watched Sergei go across the border and help bring people out. “He was headed just across the border to help an 82-year-old woman who had come from eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “At the same time, there was a very old man who was being brought across the border in a wheelchair and went immediately into the medical tent set up by the Jewish organizations.”

Mr. Rosenblum said he was very struck by the fact that “the first thing refugees see when they came through that gate is the Jewish Agency tent.”

From Medyka, the JFNA group went to the town of Przemyśl, eight miles away. There, an empty Tesco shopping mall had been converted into a refugee shelter.

“There was a huge room filled with cots, the size of a Best Buy,” Ms. Green said. “You could tell in their eyes everything these people had gone through.

Doctors from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital opened a clinic there. “If there’s a serious issue, there’s a video conversation with their department heads in Jerusalem,” Mr. Rosenblum said.

Most of the refugees at the center are not Jews. (The JDC has been housing refugees in hotel rooms.) But the doctors don’t care. Nor do the members of the Israel-based Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group who set up children’s rooms and activities at the refugee center. “The whole play area is covered with cheerful, colorful pictures sent by youth groups from around the world,” Mr. Rosenblum said.

At the border in Medyka, the local head of the JDC (in blue JDC jacket) helps an elderly man.

“One of the things that was so impressive was that the Jewish organizations — everyone from the Polish rabbinate to the Israeli diplomats to the Jewish Agency, JDC, World ORT, Hashomer Hatzair, Chabad — every one of them was working together as a team. Everyone put their egos aside. It was a testament to how organized the Jewish effort was.

“In contrast, when we took a look at the international refugee center, it was a little chaotic.

“This couldn’t have happened in this effective way without the capacity building and planning and organizing that went on before this war. When you are prepared, and you’ve planned and met with your partners in anticipation of a worst-case scenario, you can give them the assurance very quickly that the resources will be available for them to make quick decisions about using those resources if the worst case comes to pass. You need these kinds of organizations around all the time and you need to support them, so then you can immediately put hotel rooms in place to house refugees when war breaks out, knowing that you will have the emergency funds kick in to pay for them. It’s an incredible argument for supporting these organizations.”

“These organizations already had people in place in Ukraine, in Poland, and in Russia,” Ms. Green noted.

And while this work is being made by possible in large measure by American Jews, “the Polish Jewish community is really mobilized,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “They’re all working together. There are going to be multiple Pesach seders for the Jewish refugees in 11 different cities in Poland. Whoever is there and has the infrastructure is running one. Chabad, Hillel, the rabbinate — it’s wonderful to see the cooperation and the effectiveness.”

Mr. Rosenblum quoted a statement that Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and later Israeli Knesset member and government minister and later still chairman of the Jewish Agency — had made early in the war.

“Eighty years ago, if you were a Jew and showed up to a border, nobody wanted you,” he quoted Mr. Sharansky as saying. “It was a dangerous thing to be a Jew. Now you show up at the border and you walk through that gate and the first thing you see is an Israeli flag and a Jewish Agency representative and they welcome you.”

“That’s such a powerful thing,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “If you’re Jewish you have a place to go and people who love you and want to take you in their arms.

“We as a federation, we as a people, we as a community, should be very, very proud of what these organizations, our partners, are doing, the lives they’re saving, and the people they’re helping.”

To donate to the federation’s emergency Ukraine relief fund, visit https://jewishrockland.org/ukraine

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