Deep in the woods surrounding the outskirts of a small Polish village, a bonfire blazed. Dancing around the bonfire were Polish villagers in their native dress, linking arms with Ukrainian refugees – some still clad in the outfits they fled their homes in, while a rabbi from Beverly Hills, California, strummed his guitar and sang.
The scene was organized by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who has worked tirelessly to pioneer efforts to assist the Jewish community forced to flee their Ukrainian homes due to Russia’s invasion and subsequent bombardment of civilian areas.
As part of his efforts, he welcomed a group of 25 rabbinic delegates from across America who traveled to Poland in a mission organized by the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis.
“We organized this mission to Poland in lieu of our convention,” explained Rabbi Binyamin Blau, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “We could not schedule the convention in the last two years due to the pandemic, but this year, we made the decision to take a delegation and fly to Poland instead. We thought this was a more immediate need.”
The mission consisted of 25 delegates who represented their communities and synagogues when flying in to visit various refugee camps, community centers, and border crossings where Jews sought refuge. Most rabbis traveled alone, several traveled with their spouses, and one delegate traveled with his teenage son. Rabbi Adir Posy from Los Angeles offered his son Yitzi the opportunity to join the mission instead of joining his eighth-grade graduation trip, and Yitzi enthusiastically agreed.
Asked about the objective of the mission, Rabbi Blau explained that the agenda consisted of two goals: First, providing aid for the refugees in whichever way was deemed urgent, from delivering funds and supplies or providing emotional and spiritual support with words. Second, speaking to the aid organizers and refugees firsthand to gain a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground, which is rapidly evolving day by day.
“People hear news, follow social media and the press, but there’s a saying in Chazal that ‘seeing is believing.’ It was important for us to witness firsthand what relief efforts are currently underway, what the situation on the ground looks like, and how to calculate what the next steps should be in terms of aid and beyond,” says Rabbi Blau.
For some, joining the mission was personal. “We went as supporters of our kehilla Shomrei Torah in Fairlawn, N.J.,” said Rabbi Andrew Markowitz. “I am a grandchild of survivors. Two of my grandparents were refugees who needed to flee, ironically from Poland, and eventually settled in Siberia. I strongly felt that if this was happening again, in our times, it was my responsibility to go and help out.”
Rabbi Markowitz’s wife Sarah shares a similar view. “My great-grandfather was the rav in a town in Romania, where he was murdered in front of the whole community Shabbos morning. My mother’s father survived the war by jumping off a train en route to a concentration camp and eventually making it to Israel, where he resettled,” she shared. “My saba always used to say that as a refugee, he survived solely on the kindness of strangers, and so we always felt a responsibility to give back to Klal Yisrael. It’s in our DNA.”
As part of their efforts to provide support for the refugees, the delegates and their travel companions collected handwritten letters with messages of support and love from their congregants to hand out to the refugees. Some purchased bags of candy and small treats to hand out as well, with flavored lollipops being a popular gift that both adults and children appreciated. A few brought suitcases of medical supplies and equipment which were donated to Rescuers Without Borders, an Israeli humanitarian organization that arrived first on the scene. Ayala Smotrich, who leads the aid efforts, informed the rabbis that these supplies would be taken over the border and into the war zone where many Jews in need of medical assistance relied on the deliveries for survival.
According to the United Nations, 13 million people were forced to flee their homes in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. More than half of these refugees fled to neighboring countries, with over three million seeking refuge in Poland, reflecting an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Poland’s Jewish community scrambled to organize shelter, food and jobs for the thousands of refugees relying heavily on their aid, but what members of the RCA mission quickly learned was that demand had quickly outstripped supply. Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich was forced to be creative in his efforts to assist the refugees: buildings were quickly transformed into housing centers and funds were raised for food supplies, clothing, and medical care.
The Jewish Community Center in Krakow is currently assisting over 600 refugees a day with food, shelter, and clothing, which costs approximately $10,000 a day. When space runs low, creative solutions are found: the Chabad Center in Warsaw is currently paying for 150 refugees to be placed in hotel rooms, with kosher meals provided. This is a temporary solution, as the next step is trying to find these individuals jobs that can sustain them.
“The war isn’t going away, a lot needs to be done,” says Rabbi Blau. Many of the refugees are women and children whose husbands and sons were left behind to fight. Many do not know if their loved ones are still alive. Many do not know if the homes they left behind are still standing. Many will need support not just now, but one, two, three years from now. If we resettle these families, who will teach their kids? Not many have a strong Jewish education or background. Where will they live? How will they support themselves?”
Vice president of the RCA and member of the Austrian and Czech Rabbinical Courts Rabbi Arie Folger, who also joined the mission, strongly emphasizes this point: “Whenever a crisis breaks, there are a lot of people with goodwill who help. As time progresses, however, we become habituated and begin to put the crisis on the back burner, thinking a need doesn’t exist anymore. In reality though, the time where refugees are in a kind of limbo between fleeing and resettling is a super difficult time that requires a different kind of aid. In joining this mission, I wanted to see more about what is expected in the coming months, and how I personally can raise awareness publicly of that.”
When asked how the public can assist with the refugee crisis, RCA delegate and Beverly Hills Rabbi Pini Dunner – who played his guitar for the refugees during the aforementioned Lag Ba’Omer bonfire organized by Rabbi Schudrich – offers advice: “Simply giving money when someone is in need is not enough. If you have a brother or sister in need, their needs cut to the core of your being, and sorting out their problem becomes personal, it’s ‘with you.’ The problems facing Ukrainian Jewish refugees must never become problems outside of who we are. It must be ‘with us,’ and we must do everything in our power to solve it.”
Rabbi Blau invites the public to reach out to the RCA for updates about the situation and encourages people to become more informed about the crisis. “I think the trip was incredibly successful and impactful, and it will spur more people into action,” he states. “It will help us create more plans going forward as well, and the RCA will be collaborating with the Orthodox Union and other Jewish organizations to provide long-term solutions for the crisis.”