Ukraine presents me with an interesting dilemma. I am moved by the tragedy of Russia’s war of aggression and the brutality with which the Russians prosecute it. For them, human suffering is a consideration to the extent that it can persuade their enemy to surrender. The Ukrainians are victims and pawns.
But there is more to it than that.
When the war began, a group of rabbis in Philadelphia went to the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to attend Vespers on the eve of Lent and show our support for the Ukrainian people. As we approached the entrance of this beautiful space, a colleague quipped, “you know, historically, this didn’t end well for us.” And in fact, Jewish history in Ukraine is one characterized by Anti-Semitism. But our purpose was to show solidarity with those who are suffering.
I admittedly have held an anti-Ukraine bias. My personal experiences there soon after the fall of the Soviet Union showed little change in attitudes towards Jews. Furthermore, I was from this place. My namesake fled the persecution for a life in the New World. My great-grandfather, David, worked hard from the moment he arrived here. In America, he had the opportunity to get ahead, feed his family, and keep them safe, at least from the next pogrom. Besides my prejudices, the war was over there, afflicting a bunch of people who weren’t very nice to mine.
But the story is yet more complex.
I am an American and a Jew, benefiting from the blessings this land has afforded me, not the least of which was the ability to become a rabbi offering spiritual and practical leadership. My rabbinate, serving as a chaplain and teacher, and my commitment to helping others make meaning through human relationships meant that historic grievance was not a valid reason to turn a blind eye to the suffering. I needed to do something and grapple with the moral and ethical issues of these different pieces of myself. I would actively support humanitarian efforts to aid the victims.
I connected to the JCC Krakow; a place conceived to assist Holocaust survivors in their sunset years, to be a place of community and caring. The JCC became the center for the nascent rebirth of Judaism in the Krakow community and has become a significant NGO in Poland, working with the Ukrainian war refugees. Their doors are open to those in need, whether Jewish or not.
The enormity of the crisis rendered our good intentions insufficient. Active international support is required. Before Pesach, I joined with CCAR friends and colleagues, 30 in all, and went over to help. We brought supplies, about 2 tons worth, money, and ourselves. We wanted to learn first-hand about the situation to bear witness and get the story home to our respective communities.
I am gob-smacked at how the most God-awful atrocities human beings can do brought out the very best God-like compassion and humanity in others.
Sadly, the war continues. It remains bloody and brutal, the Ukrainian people bearing the brunt of the war to conquer their country, even if the cost of that victory means destroying both the people and the land in the process.
The needs on the ground have shifted as a result too. The flood of exiles has diminished, and the processing centers and welcoming corridors established on the Polish border have been largely closed. But the need for food, shelter, and clothing is critical.
Poland is straining under the load caused by the sudden massive influx of refugees; integrating people into society places a new set of burdens on a country without the resources.
I will bear witness and return home with the people’s stories and current needs–I aim to keep our communities aware and engaged with this ongoing human tragedy.
As American Jews (many tracing directly back to this region), we have an extraordinary and complicated relationship with Ukraine and Poland. Because of our fraught history, we are compelled to bear witness and encourage our communities to engage. It is a unique opportunity to live the values we hold dear.
As an awareness tool, I have been promoting a very special kippah. It is designed in the style of the Sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, in the Ukrainian national colors. The Ukrainian Sunflower Kippah is offered in appreciation for a donation to the JCC Krakow.
Manufactured by a Guatemalan Woman’s cooperative, we sourced this Kippah through another partner, Mazal Tops. We are proud to collaborate, paying fair wages to the coop and donating most of the funds to support the essential humanitarian work of the JCC Krakow. You can donate here.
If this resonates with you, please join us.
Rabbi David Levin is the founder of Jewish Relationships Initiative (JRI), a 501(c)3 focused on outreach, meaning making, and the challenging end-of-life journey. He has re-imagined the Ethical Will, found online at: ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy and JewishRelationshipsInitiative. He also teaches with noted colleagues, a lecture series exploring Jewish Wisdom throughout these demanding life phases. David Levin is a Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders and makes his home in Philadelphia with his wife Naomi.