In April, a delegation of Columbus Jewish community leaders spent seder* with Ukrainian refugees whose lives had been upended by the war with Russia. Some were drawn to Poland by a call from their ancestors and a desire to unearth and process their own history and lineage. Others shaped the trajectory of their futures through the lens of their experiences on the ground in Warsaw. Everyone witnessed firsthand what can happen when a community rallies to support one another in times of peace and times of crisis.
Terri Medlrum, Jan Singer, Liz Shafran and Julius Feibel reflected on the experience. Their stories explore history that is familiar to so many of us and set the stage for the long road ahead as we continue our steadfast work to combat antisemitism and support Jews next door and around the world.
I felt compelled to go to Warsaw because of my family history. My grandmother fled from Poland in the early 1900s. It pains me that, over 100 years later, this region is once again ensnared in turmoil and the ensuing humanitarian crisis. I was called by my history, and I also wanted to bear witness. First, to witness the work of our community. I remain overwhelmed by our community’s ability to organize and respond to crises, and I felt compelled to witness those dollars in action to ensure they were getting through and making a difference. And second, to bear witness to the large humanitarian crisis unfolding. The simplest lesson from history, if we can do nothing more, is to observe and put a spotlight on the actions of those who oppress and displace others in the world.
Through my time in Warsaw, I learned that our dollars are going to good use. The JDC and the other humanitarian agencies are doing amazing work. They are organized and actively connecting people who need them to a vast array of services, softening the extremely hard blow that these refugees are experiencing. Despite all that great work, it is never enough and where we can, we must give more. This experience has strengthened my resolve to remain involved in our Jewish community. To see the great work that our sister institutions are engaged in was overwhelming and inspirational. But more importantly, it strengthened my appreciation for the safety net that community involvement creates. I realize that we will, unfortunately, never be able to stop the influences of hatred and antisemitic acts. All we can do is work to ensure we are prepared to respond, prepared to defend and prepared to bear witness.
“I realize that we will, unfortunately, never be able to stop the influences of hatred and antisemitic acts. All we can do is work to ensure we are prepared to respond, prepared to defend and prepared to bear witness.” – Terri Meldrum
Through this experience, I learned the power of Jewish tradition. In the midst of great despair, unimaginable loss and extreme fear, our fellow Jewish refugees rejoiced in the Passover Seder and smiled while singing the songs and prayers of celebration and remembrance. I also learned that, whether you are in Bexley, Ohio or Warsaw, Poland, Dayenu sounds the same.
I went because my family is from Odessa, Ukraine and seeing what was happening to the Ukrainian people was devastating. I also had the time and resources to make the trip. I wanted to help sort out what to do to make a difference.
I learned that, unfortunately and fortunately, the Jewish community has needed to activate humanitarian relief on the ground before and was providing the most comprehensive, sustainable solutions. It was fortunate, as it set up families in crisis with the best possible situation. But it was also unfortunate, as we have learned to do this in response to centuries of oppression and violence. I also learned that supporting Federations, JDC and JewishColumbus make this vital work possible. That said, there is always more that can be done. We have to think about the next phase of helping these families get back on their feet. When they are self reliant, they will feel empowered and in control. I’m sure this holding pattern is beyond disruptive to their lives and destructive to their mental and physical well being.
“We have to think about the next phase of helping these families get back on their feet. When they are self reliant, they will feel empowered and in control.” – Jan Singer
This experience gave me confidence in the community, informed me on how to contribute to make a difference and afforded me an opportunity to actionably think about what these people—who could be us—need for a path forward. This will be a very very long road.
Thank you for the opportunity. It was a moment that I will never forget.
I chose to travel to Warsaw because I wanted to better understand how not only myself, but JewishColumbus, could be a part of the larger effort to support Ukrainian Jews in this time of conflict. On my Heart to Heart missions with the JFNA, I have heard powerful stories from women who have made efforts to support Jews throughout the world in times of dire need. These are women who have been integral to Operation Solomon or securing a safe way for Jews who lived in the Former Soviet Union. They chose to hear that call to action to take care of Jews throughout the world, and it has continued to impact them throughout their lives. They felt such a deep connection to their global Jewish community by acting on the values and ethics that we are taught.
As we quickly learned, being a witness to the effects of trauma and war is one of many roles that one can take to support our global Jewish community. As a group, we recognized that amplifying the voices of those who haven’t been heard can inspire a call to action. That action may look different for many people; it could be giving financial support to humanitarian aid organizations, volunteering time or skills, gathering supplies for refugees, or elevating the work that is being done.
“As we quickly learned, being a witness to the effects of trauma and war is one of many roles that one can take to support our global Jewish community. As a group, we recognized that amplifying the voices of those who haven’t been heard can inspire a call to action.” – Liz Shafran
On a more personal note, my own and my spouse’s family history has its roots in this part of the world. My grandfather’s family (the Zelinskis) emigrated from Poland in the late nineteenth century. I grew up with a love for perogies, buttery pastries and pickled herring. From what we understand of Andy’s family story, his great-grandparents fled what is now known as Ukraine to escape from the pogroms of the early twentieth century. Our last name, Shafran, is derived from the word saffron, which is a reference to being from a place where this spice is grown or people with reddish-hair, which is still a hallmark of many family members. If returning to a place that was once important to our families could do some good, there was no question that I would be on a plane shortly.
There were so many powerful takeaways from this intense experience. What really became apparent to me was the importance of the groundwork that the various partner organizations have done over the decades. The involvement of partner organizations like JDC, HIAS and JAFI, amongst others in this region, laid the foundation for giving great care to Jewish Ukrainians, including refugees. Not only were these aid groups able to mobilize quickly, they had the infrastructure in place to carry out the very complicated process of assisting Jewish Ukrainians in a wide variety of situations and levels of need. The network of these aid organizations enabled early warning to some Ukrainians so that they could evacuate to other countries where they were greeted with necessary supplies like medicine, diapers and food. Those who chose to or couldn’t flee received care while remaining in Ukraine, such as coping with the trauma of what was currently happening and reliving the horrors of the Holocaust for survivors. The ability to coordinate on a large scale to provide care and services for many complicated needs could only be accomplished because of the experience and depth of years of work. As Jews, we must continue to support these efforts today in order to be able to be ready for whatever may lie ahead.
“The ability to coordinate on a large scale to provide care and services for many complicated needs could only be accomplished because of the experience and depth of years of work. As Jews, we must continue to support these efforts today in order to be able to be ready for whatever may lie ahead.” – Liz Shafran
I saw the power of tradition in our Jewish practices and rituals. The Passover seder experience was unforgettable. The celebration of the exodus from Egypt takes on a whole new meaning when you are sharing that with people who have literally fled their own homes with nothing but a backpack. The concepts of freedom and liberation are not just abstract, they were manifested in the resolve of my tablemates who wanted Ukraine, their home, to remain an independent sovereign nation, even though the cost is catastrophic. For a few brief moments, there was hope that the events of the last month could fade into the background and be overpowered by hope. Having traditions and rituals give the impetus for these occasions, even when we might not be able to do them on our own.
I also feel that I was witnessing something that was akin to moments of repair. Jews have had a very complicated history with Poland. The country bears the generational trauma of concentration camps, ghettos and other horrific events and places. Today, Poland has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees, including Jews, who have fled from their own war-torn country. The citizens and government of Poland are caring for these refugees by opening up their homes, securing jobs, and giving clothing and supplies to children. It is important to know and never forget the history of what has happened in Poland. And, this does not mean that there is hope to do things differently than what has been done in the past.
I really believe in the idea that we are stronger together. I feel fortunate that I was able to share in the experience of going to Poland with others who feel that caring for Jews around the world is imperative. The short time that we were there was overwhelming to say the least, but when you are surrounded by others, that sense of being part of a kehillah carries you through some of the challenging moments.
I will continue to be engaged in the work of supporting our Jewish community, locally and globally. I think sharing the message of how working cooperatively compounds and increases impact is something that I want to extol. Having seen it on the ground in Poland, I know that we truly are stronger together.
“If you are allowed to join me, do you want to go to Warsaw?”
What a crazy question from my dad. Who would pass up an opportunity to see history happening live and in person? Who would pass up a chance to speak with individuals face-to-face about a war happening a world away?
Current events and history intrigue me, so Russia’s invasion of Ukraine captured my attention from the start. I was awed by the picture of resilience the news portrayed regarding the Ukrainian people and their leaders, and I suppose that was my greatest take away from the trip. Our news, when it comes to the Ukrainians, is getting it right. The Ukrainians are as they are portrayed—a model of strength. Celebrating Seder with the refugees was also a lesson in gratitude. Praying the same prayers that we pray at home made me realize how alike we are and how lucky I am to know that, after a long flight home, I would have the safety and security that they have lost.
“Praying the same prayers that we pray at home made me realize how alike we are and how lucky I am to know that, after a long flight home, I would have the safety and security that they have lost.” – Julius Feibel
My family has always been involved in our greater community, and my father’s involvement in the Jewish community made this opportunity possible for me. Watching the Ukrainians fight for their homeland, their way of life and their freedom has served to solidify my desire to seek a career as a public servant.