With Passover inching nearer on the calendar, a group of rabbis, joined by Facebook, was in deep discussion of a mitzvah of global proportions.
The idea to somehow help Ukrainian refugees had been posited. Soon, a group of 27 rabbis, including Ari Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, was planning a trip to Poland.
Wanting to involve their congregations in their mission, the rabbis divided a list of most needed items and held donation drives. In Arnold, the members donated over-the-counter pain medication and vitamins – and they did so in droves.
“It got to a point in which we were telling people to stop bringing them,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “It was extraordinary – a mountain of bags from the rabbis.”
When the group arrived in Krakow, Poland, and connected with the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) that would serve as their home base, it became clear that in the four days they had on the ground, they could best serve as messengers.
“We originally thought we were going to do volunteering, which we did a little, but really our biggest value was in the money that we raised and the supplies that we brought but also in the number of people that we can reach in communicating what’s going on over there,” Goldstein said.
The JCC in Krakow, a relatively small building, had become an absorption center stocked with supplies for incoming refugees. Goldstein and his cohorts helped there as needed, boosted spirits as able, and listened to the stories of both the refugees and the Polish citizens who are literally opening their homes.
Goldstein recounted a discussion with one Polish man whose family had taken in three refugee families. “All of a sudden there are all these refugees and he and his wife are like, ‘We have to do something,’” he said. “If we have one person staying at our house who’s a guest last second, it would be really tough for us. A family? Oh my gosh. Three families!”
The rabbis also spent a day in the border town of Przemysl, where they welcomed Ukrainian refugees upon their arrival. Goldstein described this as an especially emotional experience, as most of the new arrivals were in tears – of relief, exhaustion, fear, grief or all of the above.
“It was so sad. And I feel how lucky I am. It [was] hard to be [there] because I realize that humanity has gotten us to this place in which there are people who are just like me who are terrified, and who are running and who don’t know what is the right decision for themselves,” Goldstein said.
Before departing, the rabbis had the opportunity to host a Passover seder for the Jewish volunteers, many of them Israeli, who would miss spending the holiday with their families in order to help the relief effort.
Goldstein did make it home for Passover (barely), and while his bags were lighter than when he left with loads of supplies, his heart and message returned heavy and purposeful.
“I see my mission as to make sure to keep telling people about Ukraine,” he said. “This is a horrible humanitarian crisis over there, and for us to just kind of forget about it is really a sin of commission, not omission.”
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