An email went out to the Teaneckshuls group on March 11 with the subject line “Daughter going to Vienna this Sunday: Refugees need these items.”
In her message, Sandy Piontnica explained that her daughter Rachel, a 20-year-old junior at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, was leaving that Sunday for YU’s week-long “Operation Torat Chesed” to aid Ukrainian refugees.
The 28 undergrads on the trip were seeking donations of Jewish items. They were looking for things like mezuzot, kiddush cups, candlesticks, Russian-language prayerbooks, and also Purim costumes and decorations for the holiday that was coming up the following Thursday.
And that is how Rachel Piontnica and her fellow YU students ended up bringing 1,440 kippot and 350 Purim costumes, plus many other items, packed into 45 duffel bags.
When they landed in Vienna on March 13, they sorted all the donations and set up a costume pop-up shop for the children among the 500 Jewish Ukrainian refugees already in the city.
Why Vienna? Aliza Abrams Konig, the senior program director for the university’s Leadership Scholars, explained that she was asked by Erica Brown, director of YU’s Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Center for Values and Leadership, to organize a student response to the Ukrainian refugees. The request came from YU’S president, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman of Teaneck. (Rabbi Berman writes about the trip on page 16.)
“My husband, Sam, is from Austria and my in-laws are Polish, so we have a lot of contacts there,” Ms. Konig said. “I reached out to several people, and in Poland they said it wasn’t helpful to have non-Russian speakers, but in Vienna they really needed help.
“So within 48 hours we put together the whole trip. We posted an application late Tuesday night, and by Wednesday night we had 125 applicants.”
In addition to seeking Russian and German speakers, the administrators were looking for students “ready to roll up their sleeves and do whatever was needed, who’d understand that extreme flexibility would be needed as the situation changes rapidly,” she said.
“We knew it would be an intense and emotional environment so we wanted students who could handle that as well.”
YU subsidized the trip; each student paid $500 to offset the cost. Meanwhile, Ms. Konig worked with someone in the Vienna Jewish community — who turned out to be her husband’s cousin’s wife — to compile a list of what the YU delegation should bring and to work out the logistics for the group, which was accompanied by YU faculty members including Dr. Brown and Rabbi Josh Blass.
“One of our students, Meira Prager from Teaneck, persuaded Austria Airlines to waive the baggage fees,” Ms. Konig said. “I had tried to do that, unsuccessfully — but she was really persistent.”
All the items in the duffel bags were greatly appreciated, Rachel Piontnica said.
The students got right to work when they landed. Mostly, they provided what Ms. Konig called “psychological CPR” to refugees housed at two hotels.
Because another 200 refugees were on their way, the YU delegation helped the Jewish community prepare rooms in a third hotel, which had been closed for two years due to the pandemic.
They entertained the children at meals in two restaurants serving kosher lunches and dinners to the refugees, and helped at the local Jewish school, which had absorbed 125 displaced Ukrainian kids.
“I spent a lot of my time with the children,” Ms. Piontnica said. “Some of them speak fluent Hebrew that they learned in school, which was really interesting because I also learned Hebrew in school. But often we had to find other ways to communicate with them. We sometimes used Google Translate on our phones, or we would use a smile or hand gestures — anything just to show that we were there for them.”
The YU students were housed in an apartment building owned by a local Jewish couple who also arranged Shabbat meals with community members.
On Purim, the 13 men and 15 women from YU celebrated with the refugees and their local hosts.
“There was this one little girl, she was probably 9, whom I’d met the day before, and when I saw her there, I started dancing with her. She walked away for a second and came back and gave me the biggest hug and handed me a strawberry Laffy Taffy,” Ms. Piontnica recalled.
“And then for the rest of the trip, every time we ran into her, she came up to me and gave me a big hug. We couldn’t really talk to each other because I didn’t speak Russian and she didn’t speak English or Hebrew, but just the smile on her face and knowing that we were there for each other was really special.”
Yedidya Schechter of Monsey, a 21-year-old psychology major at Yeshiva College, said he applied to go on the mission because he was tired of feeling helpless.
“You know, we listen to the news about what’s happening in Ukraine and just feel like we can’t do anything except feel sad for them,” he said. “So I saw this as an opportunity for me to actually make an impact on people, to go out of my comfort zone and help people.”
The Viennese Jewish community’s Purim gala made a big impression on Mr. Schechter.
“Everyone — the Viennese Jews, the Ukrainian refugees, Russians, YU students — we were all dancing and full of happiness together, and that really left an impact on me,” he said.
There’s a photo of Mr. Schechter dancing with a 6-year-old girl whose father was back in Ukraine fighting the Russian troops.
“This sweet little girl didn’t know a word of English. She was standing there in a cute Minnie Mouse costume that we’d brought. And at one point she came over to me and tapped my shoulders and I understood she wanted me to pick her up. So I put her on my shoulders and we danced for like 10 minutes. I really got teary — here is this girl whose father is still in Ukraine and we were able to bring a little bit of happiness to her at this moment. It was just so incredible.”
Mr. Schechter said he’d been always pictured refugees as “disheveled people wearing sackcloth, fleeing from a third world country. But these were normal people who just wanted to live a normal life. They were just like you and me except that they got displaced and lost everything and had to move. That really threw me for a loop; it was not what I had expected.”
Ms. Piontnica added, “Growing up, we always heard that people had to leave their homes during the Holocaust, but it was never something that I thought I would see in my lifetime. And I never thought it was something that I would experience. I thought it wouldn’t really become a reality, but it is. It is definitely a reality, which was terrifying and devastating.”
She and Mr. Schechter said they are encouraging people to give financial support to the communities in several countries that are housing and feeding thousands of Ukrainian refugees.
“It costs the Jewish community in Vienna over $100,000 a week to support them,” Ms. Piontnica said. “What was really incredible is that they take in anyone who needs a place and, afterward, they try to figure out how they’re going to help them. They’re never going to leave anyone stranded who needs a place to go.”