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Jewish leaders are flocking to Ukraine’s border. Some question the trips.

American Jewish leaders and organizations are traveling to Ukraine’s borders on missions to witness first-hand the largest refugee crisis since World War II. It’s part of a larger Jewish effort to help feed, clothe and shelter Ukrainians in neighboring countries.

But the delegations of rabbis and other Jewish leaders visiting the region has sparked some debate over the ethics and efficacy of such trips. While the organizers and participants say the trips are important ways for them to more deeply understand the war’s impact and the Jewish relief network, critics say they commandeer scarce resources that should be reserved for aid workers and refugees.

“We are here to bear witness,” David Harris, chief of the American Jewish Committee, said during a recent visit to a refugee center along the Polish border with Ukraine. “We will not stand on the sidelines while this tragedy unfolds.”

“Maybe nobody knows exactly what is the right or best way to do this,” said WUPJ president Sergio Bregman

The Jewish Federations of North America, which has already raised nearly $30 million in emergency aid for Ukraine, has arrange several trips for its executives and lay leaders over the coming weeks. “We went to Poland to see for ourselves,” JFNA’s president, Eric Fingerhut, said in a statement upon his return from the mission on Wednesday, “and to see what extraordinary needs have arisen that we should and will support.”

Eric Fingerhut

Eric Fingerhut, Jewish Federations of North America president, during a visit to Poland this week in support of Ukrainian refugees. Courtesy of Jewish Federations of North America

(The Forward’s editor-in-chief is joining a JFNA trip next week to report on the experience.)

Those most critical of the practice declined to speak on the record, to avoid alienating colleagues. They argue that trips by clergy and nonprofit executives take translators, guides, drivers and hotel rooms away from people who more urgently need them, such as medics and other trained relief workers.

“I think it’s a terrible idea to go there indiscriminately,” said the leader of one major Jewish organization. “Let’s face it, most people go there to get a little iPhone clip of themselves at the border and use it for fundraising purposes.”

A spokesperson for Jewish Federations said in a statement that nobody had raised direct concerns over their visits to the region. “We have not seen any evidence that there is a shortage of translators, guides, drivers or hotel rooms in Poland,” the representative said.

Stay or go?

Some of the most pointed criticism of the delegations, which are often preceded and followed by press releases and fundraising letters, has been shared in a private Facebook group for Reform rabbis, where some cautioned that visits by clergy who don’t speak the language may do more harm than good.

Others have a softer take on those who make the trek, but still believe that Americans can help Ukraine more by lobbying the Biden administration, raising money that can be sent to organizations with long records in crisis zones and supporting Ukrainian refugees who have made it to the United States.

“I do not oppose those who want to make trips and bear witness and demonstrate what they’ve seen but I do think our priority should be embracing refugees in this country,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, whose organization, Uri L’Tzedek, has been assisting Ukranians who have made their way to the U.S. border with Mexico.

But when it comes to Ukraine, Jewish organizations remain focused on those in the direct line of Russian fire, and the more than three million who have escaped to neighboring countries and must rely on others for their most basic needs.

Reform Judaism’s international and European branches have raised nearly $1.5 million for a Ukraine crisis fund, and Sergio Bergman, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, said his organization was working to support the roughly 3,000 Reform Jews who were living in Ukraine at the start of the conflict.

Bergman declined to say what, if any, advice WUPJ was offering to Reform rabbis interested in traveling to the region and said his goal was to ensure the community remained unified around supporting Ukraine in the coming months and years as the country begins to rebuild.

“Maybe we have different opinions within all our regional communities about what is the right thing to do but every community was so responsive to the crisis,” Bergman said. “We understand that maybe nobody knows exactly what is the right or best way to do this.”

Igor Zinkov, a rabbi at the Liberal Synagogue in London, is in Poland working with refugees as part of WUPJ’s Ukraine relief effort. He said there is a desperate need for rabbis who speak Ukranian and Russian, which he does, but that English-speaking rabbis were unlikely to be able to offer meaningful assistance.

“There is very little pastoral support you can provide to a person without speaking the same language with them, both literally and culturally,” Zinkov said. He added that he understood some visits by American rabbis could help with fundraising, which he supported, but said such visits needed to be done tactfully. “We just need to be careful about not to do it at the price of diverting the time and attention of local community organizers away from refugees.”

Visitors remain unswayed

Jonathan Blake, senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple, recently returned from a United Jewish Appeal delegation to the Polish border with Ukraine with 17 other rabbis from the New York area. He said it was important for rabbis to be able to be moral leaders in their congregations, and that visiting the region has helped him educate his community about the war’s toll on Ukranians.

“Their time and energies would be better served directly addressing the crisis from their own pulpits,” Rabbi Jonathan Blake said of critics

Blake added that clergy also had a role to play in comforting refugees and demonstrating that they had the sympathy of people around the world. “We’re not equipped to strap on armor and fight shoulder to shoulder with the Ukranians,” Blake said, “but it’s important for the refugees to understand that they are seen.”

He said that his congregation’s 1,000 families had strongly supported his visit, and had little sympathy for those who spoke out online against rabbinical delegations to the region.

“I think that their time and energies would be better served directly addressing the crisis from their own pulpits,” Blake said. He called the idea that the trips wasted resources “specious,” noting the amount it cost to travel there paled in comparison to the $5 million the New York federation had raised for Ukraine and that the visiting rabbis brought bags filled with supplies.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who leads Temple Israel outside Miami, is planning a trip with more than 25 rabbis to Poland. He said the goal was to bring back stories of what they saw to congregations in the United States and that he felt there was a moral imperative for Jewish leaders to be present during the humanitarian crisis in the region.

“I’ll be bringing stuffed toys,” Salkin said. “I want to see the look in the children’s eyes.”

As his thoughts for those who warned him against organizing the trip?

“Yes, there were people who were critical of this trip: ‘You didn’t check with this person. You didn’t check with that person. You don’t speak the language,’” Salkin said. “I have nothing printable to say.”

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