Three Philadelphia-area rabbis, Gregory Marx, David Levin and Jon Cutler, traveled to Poland from April 10-14 to help refugees from the war in Ukraine.
Marx, of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, and Levin, who runs the Jewish Relationships Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Wynnewood, said they went to offer practical support and “to bear witness.”
That first reason included bringing bags of supplies, like clothes and toiletries, and more than $500,000 from their congregations. Such practical support was important for Ukrainians, both Jews and non-Jews, who were forced to leave their homes.
But it was the second reason that drove the rabbis to leave the relative safety of their own homes.
“Bearing witness is key,” Levin said.
It’s key because it’s their responsibility as faith leaders, according to Marx and Levin. Rabbis need to see the tragedy of war up close, bring the reality home to congregants and help them make sense of it.
Marx and Cutler are also co-presidents of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, while Levin is on the executive committee. (Cutler leads Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County.) So they all felt that they had a wider obligation to bear witness for all area Jews and rabbis, too.
“We take our teaching seriously,” Marx said. “We had to do something.”
The trip came together after an invitation from the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, which is organizing relief efforts there. The JCC reached out to Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, who spread the word to other American rabbis.
Marx, Cutler and Levin each decided to go on their own. But when they realized they all wanted to make the journey, they said let’s take it together.
Within two weeks, they were flying over the Atlantic Ocean, according to Marx.
Upon arrival, the men expected to see a city in disarray.
“People living on streets or in tents,” Marx said.
But Krakow wasn’t like that. Instead, despite the massive influx of people, it was orderly.
Ukrainian refugees were living with city residents or in quarters put up by nongovernmental organizations. They were using convention centers and shopping malls, among other locations.
“The people of Krakow are remarkably industrious and inventive in helping the refugees,” Marx said. “Most of the people will be taken into Polish homes until they’re able to get back on their feet.”
That part, though, may take a while.
While the scene in Krakow was more orderly than expected, the refugees’ lives were not. As Marx put it, in many cases, they come across the border with nothing but a trash bag of clothing and fear in their eyes.
Their houses have been destroyed and their families separated. In many cases, women and children are crossing to Poland while men are staying back, either to fight or to protect their homes.
The rabbis were trying to offer assistance to “people who otherwise have nothing,” Marx said.
One woman told Levin she’s teaching her child never to speak Russian again.
“She said, ‘I don’t hate Putin. I hate the Russians,’” Levin recalled. “’It’s the Russians who are tying people up and shooting civilians.’”
Another woman told Marx about the harsh nature of her journey. Marx asked if she considered herself a refugee. She said no.
“I lost my home, but I’m going to find a new home,” she continued, according to Marx.
“She’s going to stay here in Poland,” he added. “I don’t think she’s going to go back.”
The rabbis spent much of their time in Krakow doing behind-the-scenes work, as a language barrier prevented them from talking directly with many of the refugees. On April 13, for example, they took 60 suitcases, opened them and made piles of medicine, toiletries and blankets, among other items.
But though most of their work was practical, as the rabbis prepared to fly home on April 14, they still felt like they bore witness.
JCC of Krakow Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, who is originally from New York, told the rabbis at one point that, “What the people of Poland are doing today for the Ukrainians is what they did not do for the Jewish community in World War II.”
And that’s the message that the local Jewish leaders will bring home, they said. Levin was impressed that the JCC was aiding both Jews and non-Jews. Ornstein estimated that 90% of the people his organization is helping are not Jewish.
Marx promised that he would speak about his experience during High Holiday services this fall. What he saw and what he did, as well as the “atrocities committed by the Russians,” as he put it.
“The sin of World War II was the sin of silence,” Marx said. “We have to be here to be accurate reporters.”
Despite their situation, the refugees recognized that they were not alone, according to Levin.
“People are deeply grateful that we are here,” he said. “That people are here on this side to welcome them, to treat them with kindness.”
Ornstein was grateful for the assistance.
His JCC is not a humanitarian organization, he explained. But it needs to become one during the war.
It would not be possible without the financial support from the Jewish community, he added. Ornstein is seeing that “the Jewish world stands with us.”
“When we were persecuted, the world stood mostly silent,” Ornstein said. “We cannot be silent when others are being harmed.”
On the night of April 12, the rabbis and other volunteers held a Passover seder. Its attendees were Polish, Jewish and Christian. Marx said they were all celebrating “the festival of freedom.”
“To share the story of what does freedom mean?” Levin added. “The values of Passover are playing out in the world as we speak.”
On April 14, the rabbis departed from Krakow, flew back over the Atlantic and arrived home a day before Passover started. They said they had to get back for the important holiday. But they returned home with a message.
“We did not go to Ukraine, but we saw the results of that violence,” Marx said.
“It’s very hard to look into the eyes of someone who left home and who with her child has left her husband behind to defend his country,” Levin added.
“You cannot turn away,” Marx concluded. JE