Less than 48 hours ago, I stood in the Polish town of Medyka at the border with Ukraine, a site where thousands of refugees have streamed through daily as they flee the devastation of the Russian invasion. As CEO of the Detroit Federation, I — along with Leah Trosch, a volunteer leader and past President of Federation's Women's Philanthropy — was asked to represent our community there, bearing witness to the humanitarian crisis now playing out. I can report that it was one of the most difficult and moving experiences of my life.
Virtually all the refugees are women and children, since military-aged men are forbidden from leaving the country. It is hard to describe the combination of fatigue, desperation and relief on their faces as they cross the border. Weeks ago, they were living an ordinary life as teachers, doctors and shop owners; today, they are escaping with nothing more than a suitcase and cell phone. Their primary concern is simply finding food and shelter for their families.
The very first tents they encounter at the border are those operated by our international partners, JDC and JAFI. The agencies are there to welcome Jews and non-Jews alike, offering immediate care as well as longer-term support. One of the most extraordinary images I saw was the Israeli flag flying prominently at the crossing to Poland, a symbol of our people’s commitment to not just fellow Jews but to the healing and betterment of the world as a whole.
It was incredible to see that many of the aide volunteers had come from Israel — including individuals who made Aliyah at some point in their lives and now feel an obligation to help others in return. They were not just there for Jews: Again and again, I was told that this is how we repay the “righteous gentiles” who put their lives at risk for us during the Holocaust, 80 years ago.
Everywhere I went, I saw the power of tzedakah in action. In Poland, I visited two processing centers — entire hotels our partner agencies have transformed into free shelters for refugees. There are daycares in the open conference areas, mental health counselors on staff and several rooms filled with donated funds for families to use as needed.
Of the many people I met, two stories stuck in my heart:
The first was Bella, an 87-year-old woman who had been forced to flee Odessa — for the second time. The first was in 1941, at age 7.
Bella was taken to Siberia with her mother, where they had to begin a new life with nothing. She fought back tears as she told me how she never imagined this would happen again; she worries that she is too old to start over. I assured her that this time it will be different and that we are here to help. Thanks to JAFI, Bella will be making Aliyah to Israel next week.
I also met Shana at a JDC hotel. Shana ran a Jewish nursery school in Kharkiv, Ukraine until, after weeks of heavy bombing, she finally decided to flee.
She now runs the daycare program as a volunteer at a Hampton Inn in Warsaw, where refugees stay while they try to figure out where to go next. Shana told me of a four-year-old who recently drew his house and then scribbled it over in black marker to show how it looks today.
As difficult as it was to witness this tragedy, I have never been so proud to represent the Jewish Federation and the work we do to raise funds for our local and international Jewish family. I’m referring not only to the recent Ukraine Emergency Campaign, which provided millions of dollars to JDC and JAFI operations, but also the many decades of Annual Campaign support. Year after year, our campaign dollars fund the critical infrastructure that enabled this swift response. As we say, we are here for those in need today because we were there yesterday.
There can be no better example of the impact of the Federation model of collective giving: 200,000 Ukrainian Jews and countless others have access to life-saving resources thanks to support of donors across Jewish Detroit and other communities around the world. My hope is that everyone who has donated to our campaign understands the good they have done — and will continue to do — with their sustained support.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention that this weekend is Super Sunday, another opportunity for community members to take part in our 2022 Campaign before we close it in May. If you haven’t yet made a pledge, please answer the call (or make your donation now at jewishdetroit.org/donate).
Together, let’s pray for an end to this senseless conflict, and a return to safety and freedom for our Jewish family in Ukraine, as well as for all the Ukrainian people. It is by the grace of G-d that we are the ones able to help and not the ones needing it.
I hope that none of you will ever be in that place of need. But know that if you are, the Federation and your Jewish community will be there for you.