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Looking Forward

An umbrella with holes, Israeli clowns, and other tales from my trip to Ukraine’s border with Poland

“My heart was so full just standing next to them,” a lawyer from Tampa said.

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Outside the bus window as we headed for Poland’s border with Ukraine, I stared at the road signs. Most contained consonant clusters I could not conceive how to pronounce — we were in Poland, after all — but there were some familiar names from Jewish history.

Majdanek, Treblinka — the Nazi death camps I had visited on my first trip to Poland, back in 1987, when I was a teenager on one of the first such pilgrimages. And Chelm, home to the Wise Men of Jewish folklore, whose little vignettes I remembered from childhood Hebrew school classes.

It was Chelm that Eric Fingerhut focused on when we got back from the border that night. Fingerhut is chief executive of the Jewish Federations of North America, whose trip I was tagging along with. He shared the story about the two Wise Men of Chelm who were out for a walk when it suddenly started to rain. Maybe you remember it?

Only one of the men had an umbrella. The other urged him to open it. “It won’t help, it’s full of holes,” said the first. “Then why’d you bring it?” asked his friend. “I didn’t think it was going to rain.”

Fingerhut told the group: “We’re the umbrella.”

The JFNA group talking to refugees in Lublin.

The JFNA group talking to refugees in Lublin. By Jodi Rudoren

JFNA has not only raised $40 million in emergency aid for Ukrainians since the war began, but for many years has been the largest donor of unrestricted funds for the two Jewish nonprofits leading relief efforts, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee.

“We were there on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10,” he said. “We’re only able to be here today because we were already here yesterday.”

I’d decided to visit the border region last week after my inbox and Facebook feed filled up with accounts of Jewish leaders making the trek. As I reached out to find a mission to join, I discovered a raging debate among Reform rabbis over the ethics: were visitors taking up resources — translators, hotel rooms, transportation — better reserved for the refugees?

As it happened, though more than 2 million refugees have already poured into Poland, the flow had slowed significantly by this week. The places we visited — hotels in Warsaw and Lublin that have been transformed into refugee shelters and processing centers, aid tents along the border itself — were uncrowded and calm, so humanitarian helpers seemed to have plenty of time to brief us.

And our group — 30 people from 10 mid-sized North American cities — seemed to take seriously the responsibility to leverage what they witnessed to build support back home for a crisis with no end in sight.

On Monday, hours after we arrived, the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, told the group he was planning Passover Seders for up to 1,000 Ukrainians — but needed $40,000 for kosher food, wine and Haggadahs. By Thursday, the day after we got back, Joel Marcovitch, CEO of the Federation in Columbus, Ohio, had secured a donor to cover the tab.

Carolyn Gitlin, who lives in Hartford and chairs JFNA’s women’s philanthropy division, came with crucial medicine for Glycogen Storage Disease, handing it to a Ukrainian boy with the deadly genetic disorder and his mother in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, where our group stayed.

Gitlin also brought beaded bracelets in Ukrainian blue and gold for each of the women on the trip, designed by her friend, Elise Rosenstock, who is selling them for $49 each and donating proceeds to the relief effort.

Beat bracelets to support relief efforts.

Beat bracelets to support relief efforts. Courtesy of Carolyn Gitlin

Tanya Arbit, who grew up in Kyiv and moved to Milwaukee in 1989, jumped in to act as translator for the refugees at one point — until she got too emotional.

Then there was Mark Wright, a personal injury lawyer from Tampa, who came early and stayed late because he wanted to do more than the 36-hour group tour would allow.

Wright, 56, got a 23-and-me subscription as a Hanukkah gift from his wife in 2020 and discovered his background is “100% Ukrainian.” As the war began, he said, “I’m sitting there watching the news and it’s driving me crazy — what can I do? I just felt the imperative of being present.”

He brought four suitcases filled with Tylenol, Advil, Band-Aids, gauze, prescription medicine donated by a doctor friend and clothes contributed by families at his 6-year-old son’s school.

When he dropped these at the Joint’s donation center in Warsaw on Monday morning, he learned that the woman who usually sorts the stuff had contracted COVID, so he spent four hours unpacking bags and boxes and helping refugees “shop” for what they needed.

Mark Wright, the lawyer from Tampa, with supplies for refugees.

Mark Wright, the lawyer from Tampa, with supplies for refugees. Courtesy of Mark Wright

The day before, Wright had shown up at The Atrium, an office building housing 150 refugees that happened to be across the street from the Westin, in a cluster of gleaming skyscrapers that our Polish guide said was called Little Manhattan.

He asked what they needed — water, cleaning supplies, canned food — and then went to the local superstore, armed with $5,000 in donations friends had Venmo’d before the trip. He also went to Dudo Pizza and brought back 35 cheese pies for the refugees’ dinner.

“We made a deal — I don’t want to be too much of a schnorer, so I paid for 25 and they gave me 10,” Wright laughed. “Everybody wants to help.”

He also went to the mall to pick up about $1,000 worth of Lego, puzzles, Slime and other toys he needed because of a deal he’d made with some Israeli clowns.

Eager to do some hands-on helping, Wright had called the Joint before the trip to offer his services. “They ask you, are you a doctor? Do you speak Ukrainian? Do you speak Russian? Do you speak Polish? That was a no-no-no-no,” Wright recalled.

Eventually, a Tampa friend connected him with someone who works at an Israeli startup, who connected him with the trained “medical clowns,” who have been entertaining refugee children at the border for weeks.

“I negotiated a deal — what’s it take to spend a day with you?” Wright explained. “They said toys, so I brought as much as I could.”

On Tuesday evening, when our group left the border crossing at Medyka, Wright stayed, in a hotel only about 55 miles from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Wednesday “was a day like no other,” he texted me yesterday. He met the clowns at a McDonald’s and went with them to the humanitarian aid center where thousands of Ukrainians come straight from the border.

“That is where the magic happened,” Wright said. “My heart was so full just standing next to them. Other people delivered food and clothes. My chevra delivered love and smiles.”

It’s easy, in many ways, to rush to the border to help in the first stage of a crisis, when even an umbrella with holes can be of some use. As the war enters its second month, with the United Nations reporting that half of Ukraine’s children have been displaced, Fingerhut, the JFNA chief, urged his group to think longer term.

What will Ukraine and Ukrainians need six month from now and six years from now? How can Israel absorb the estimated 40% of Ukraine’s 200,000 Jews who might want to move there?

And what about the 600,000 Jews now in Russia under an increasingly authoritarian regime? “If the Iron Curtain falls again,” he said, “we’re not going to take 50 years to get people out this time.”

Fingerhut, 62, has a somewhat unusual background for a Jewish nonprofit head — he served a term in Congress and five in the Ohio state senate. During the pandemic, he decided to do Daf Yomi — the 7.5-year process of studying the entire Talmud, one page each day — so he was shlepping in his backpack the five-pound Koren edition, poring over it on the bus to the border.

He was also saying Kaddish for his mother, Alice, who died on Feb. 20 at age 97. Members of the group made a minyan for him at the hotel on Monday night and at the airport before our flight back from the border to Warsaw Tuesday evening.

That night, Fingerhut told a bit of his mother’s story: she was a twin, the 11th child of a Hungarian rabbi who emigrated to Ohio and owned a grocery store in Cleveland.

JFNA chief Eric Fingerhut saying the Kaddish for his mother in the Warsaw airport.

JFNA chief Eric Fingerhut saying the Kaddish for his mother in the Warsaw airport. By Jodi Rudoren

Fingerhut never met his grandfather, who was known for his cantorial singing voice. That voice was passed down to his Uncle Jack, who taught Fingerhut one of the old Hungarian melodies, for a song from Psalm 118, which he sang to her, over and over, during her final hours.

“Now it’s our generation’s turn,” he told the group. “There’s nobody but us.”

 

Your Turn: Female Firsts

In last week’s newsletter about the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, I invited you to share your own stories of female firsthood, and they poured in.

Readers wrote about being the first bat mitzvah at their synagogue, the first female rabbi or president of their synagogues, the first Jew to give a sermon in a church or to bring a homemade challah to a Navajo coming of age story. Read the highlights below.

 

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