‘We’re in the business of saving Jewish lives’

JFNA have raised $25,000,000 – the largest sum of funds to assist the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in their work across Europe.

 Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)
Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)

WARSAW – The Novotel hotel in the center of Warsaw is full of contrasts: As the largest hotel in Poland’s capital, it has tourists, but also many refugees.

Even though there are many Jewish symbols on signs or on kippot worn by some men and boys, not all the refugees are Jewish in this hotel. The Swedish government has based its headquarters in it and is offering any Ukrainian refugee a home in Sweden.

On Monday, a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) mission of dozens of lay leaders and executives arrived to learn about the situation of Jewish refugees on ground. The mission is led by JFNA chairman Mark Wilf and CEO Eric Fingerhut.

Jewish Federations of North America have raised $25,000,000 – the largest sum of funds to assist the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in their work across Europe.

Jewish Agency COO Yehuda Setton greeted the mission’s participants and gave them a glimpse of what refugees go through when they arrive at the hotel.

 Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH) Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022. (credit: HADAS PARUSH)

He said 140 buses assisted in the evacuation of Jews from Ukraine and brought them to refugee centers in the bordering countries.

“In our shelters in four countries around Ukraine, we have almost 7,000 people who are living there temporarily on their way to Israel,” Setton said. There were 6,000 people in the morning, and within a few hours, 1,000 new Jewish refugees arrived, he said.

The Jewish Agency took care of more than 10,000 Ukrainian Jews, and 2,700 Ukrainian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the outbreak of the war, Setton said, adding that 100 Jewish Agency staff members are now working in neighboring countries.

“I want to be prepared for 10,000 Jews in our centers, since this is definitely something we have to be prepared for,” he said.

“We will open a new center in a hotel in Poland in the next few days in order for us to have enough room for every refugee who approaches us,” Setton told the North American leaders. “On Tuesday, another 250 Ukrainian Jews will make aliyah from Poland to Israel.”

Fingerhut told the mission’s participants, “There is only one organization in the world that could manage this type of operation – whether it is saving Jews, taking care of aliyah and making sure they have insurance while in Israel before they are even considered Israeli citizens.”

The Jewish Federations are locating Jewish Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking professionals across North America who can volunteer to assist the operation on ground, he said.

Setton said Jewish Agency emissary Shmuel Shpak was working very hard to help the refugees.

“I’ve known him for years, yet he’s now on the edge,” he said. “He’s very tired and worn out. We need to help him continue this complex operation.”

“People ask what we do if the Jews we rescue don’t want to make aliyah, and I answer: ‘I’m in the business of saving Jewish lives,’” he added.

Wilf told The Jerusalem Post, “It’s tragic. People are really going through a lot of personal suffering, and families are being dislocated. Many of the ones who we’ve already visited had good lives. Their lives were basically destroyed, and they’re starting again with nothing.

“I’m just incredibly proud of the professionals on the ground here in Poland – so impressed with how they’ve been able to talk to these people and try to help them manage their way out. We are trying to get them on a path to a stable and better future.”

“My parents were Holocaust survivors,” he said. “The only difference between then and now is there’s a State of Israel and a Jewish community that has the wherewithal to help. The suffering is tremendous.”

“I think we have a very generous Jewish community, and we’re fortunate,” Wilf said about raising $25,000,000. “We have incredible leadership in 146 federations and hundreds of network communities.”

“We can’t forget,” he said. “It’s not just the Jewish communities that are in distress – it’s what we’re primarily concerned about – but we have to also be concerned about the incredible humanitarian crisis. Millions of people here are being dislocated and relocated. I think the Jewish community is a part of that solution as well.”