Bay Area rabbis bear witness to Ukrainian refugees in Poland J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on April 25, 2022

On Feb 23, everything was wonderful in my life. On Feb. 24, my life changed completely.

Feb. 24 was the date of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and those words from a Ukrainian refugee really struck Rabbi Jill Perlman, of Lafayettes Temple Isaiah. Perlman was one of 27 rabbis and cantors that traveled together this month to Krakow, Poland, as guests of the citys Jewish Community Center. They were there to bear witness to the humanitarian crisis and the resilience of the refugees, and to bring the stories of what they saw and heard back to their congregations.

It is always powerful, and its a privilege, certainly, to bear witness to events like this, Perlman said.

Rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oaklands Temple Sinai and interim rabbi at Alamedas Temple Israel, and Rabbi Darryl Crystal, senior interim rabbi of San Mateos Peninsula Temple Beth El, were also on the trip, which was organized by three Reform organizations: the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. From April 10 to April 14, the clergy visited several refugee hubs and volunteer centers to get a sense of a crisis that has caused more than 5 million people to flee Ukraine, about 9 percent of the countrys population. About 2.8 million have crossed the border into Poland, a country of less than 38 million.

Think of a city the size of Chicago, and one day everybodys leaving with just one suitcase, Crystal said. And they all got on buses and came to California.

Many of the refugees are separated families, as men of fighting age are required to stay in Ukraine to help the war effort, leaving mothers forced to take their children to safety.

It really hits you when you see its women, children and elderly, Chester said.

All three rabbis said the relief provided by international agencies, organizations and the Polish government is astounding, with everyone working in tandem to provide refugees with what they need, whether thats medical attention, housing or transportation to friends and family across Europe.

Its just an incredible relief operation, Crystal said.

Because so many refugees arrive with so few possessions, the clergy brought with them money (approximately $750,000 in donations) and supplies 2 tons in total, Perlman said.

Underwear, Tylenol, menstrual pads, tampons, clothes, shoes what folks might need when they run, she said.

The supplies were donated to the JCC in Krakw, one of the many hubs for refugee support for all refugees, not just Jewish ones. Perlman said she spoke to an older Jewish woman in Krakw about that.

She was all for it, Perlman said. She was incredibly proud! She said, We need to do for them what no one did for us.

The group visited Przemyl, a city on the border where refugees cross into Poland. There, Chester said, he saw a Star of David on an Israeli aid tent, and next to it an Egyptian flag and a Sikh-sponsored aid agency.

That really, for me, summed up what was going on, with volunteers from all over the world of every different religion, he said.

The rabbis also visited a mall that had been converted into a store where refugees could come and shop for clothes for free.

You can take as much as you want except for underwear, Crystal said. With that theres a limit. And they go through 10,000 pairs of underwear a day. They have bags of things to be sorted.

But for the Bay Area clergy on the trip, it wasnt only about refilling warehouses with supplies, it was also about bearing witness. They all said their positions as spiritual and community leaders give them an opportunity to amplify the story of the work at the border.

Were coming back to give testimony, Chester explained.

Thats all the more important, he added, as the war drags on.

What begins to happen after a while is it leaves the front pages of the newspaper, and what begins to happen is it leaves peoples minds, he said.

But for now, the clergys congregants as well as strangers are looking for an opportunity to help. When Crystal was at the San Francisco airport with five duffel bags labeled Ukraine relief, a woman walked up to him. Shed noticed the bags.

[The woman] gave me a $50 bill and said, Give this to help people, he recalled.

That gesture summed up so much, he said.

On a certain level thats what this trip was about, he added. It was about making people aware.

All three rabbis tied that mission to Jewish values.

This is something that needs our attention, and especially for the Jewish community this is a meaningful moment, Perlman said. Its not lost on me that I was there just before Pesach.

In fact, at the end of the trip, as the rabbis were preparing to return to their homes and celebrate Passover, they held an early seder at the JCC.

It was full of ruach, Chester said, using the Hebrew word for spirit. I dont know what other word to use but ruach. You could touch the spirit there, it was palpable.

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Bay Area rabbis bear witness to Ukrainian refugees in Poland J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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