NEW YORK – When Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, members of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (SWFS) in New York City sprang into action with a similar impulse as the rest of the world: They opened their wallets, together raising $150,000 in a matter of weeks for humanitarian aid for more than 10 million displaced Ukrainians.
But the Manhattan Reform congregation’s Senior Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch has been outspoken in his belief that nothing compares to feet on the ground, contrary to advice from some aid groups that money is more beneficial than visits. Hirsch quickly organized a relief mission, and now as war rages on two months later, nearly two dozen congregants and other New York Jewish leaders are taking their solidarity with Ukraine a step further.
On Sunday night, April 24, armed with 84 duffel bags weighing 1,200 pounds packed with critical supplies, 23 volunteers flew out of John F. Kennedy International airport, embarking on a five-day congregational mission to the Poland-Ukraine border to distribute supplies, offer emotional support to refugees and engage with Jewish relief groups.
Just days ahead of the trip, which costs nearly $3,000 a person, Hirsch told The Jerusalem Post that the mission has three objectives. “One is to bear witness. I am not a politician; I am not a diplomat. My job is not to weigh national interests. My job is to represent and teach the deepest of Jewish values,” he said. “What we are witnessing in Ukraine by the Russian military and Putin regime on an innocent population is a brutal offense against God. The Jewish people, especially, should be repelled by this. To simply watch this on-screen day after day, I just felt exceedingly frustrated and wanted to do something about it. Praying needs to lead to action. This mission is on behalf of the American Jewish community, the Reform movement and, of course, our synagogue.”
The second objective of the mission, Hirsch said, is to “bring relief, in the form of supplies, money and human interaction.” The third and final objective, he continued, is to “make us better human beings and better Jews and to understand the nature of evil and how fragile all of our lives are. I want to bring back to our New York community the very Jewish experience of dislocation and exile and working to improve the condition for those refugees.”
Hirsch said he is particularly yearning to meet Israeli relief workers on the border. “They just do a phenomenal job. They know how to operate in very adverse situations and are just amazing,” he said.
THERE IS a possibility the mission will cross the border into Ukraine, Hirsch said, “depending on if we receive advice that it’s safe to go in there. There’s an Israeli field hospital over the border that I would like to go to show American Jews what Israelis are doing but only if we are told that it’s safe.”
Hirsch, who has led SWFS since 2004, added that if the objectives are fulfilled, he hopes to lead another mission to the border, perhaps bringing teenagers. “We want to see what’s on the ground before bringing youngsters,” he said. Participants in this week’s trip range in age from ages 30s to 70s.
One of the congregants traveling this week to meet with Ukrainian refugees who escaped to Poland is SWFS President Steven Silverstein.
Silverstein, who works in banking and has been a member of the Upper West Side synagogue for more than 15 years, said he was eager to attend the mission despite never having been on a humanitarian trip before.
“Why this mission and why now? I think it has to do with the Jewish values I’ve been blessed to have since childhood,” he told the Post. “My family is originally from Eastern Europe so going back and helping people certainly resonates. As Jews, we have collectively experienced displacement, both in the biblical past and recently and as such we have a responsibility to support all peoples who are being forced from their homes. This is a great opportunity to get in on the ground and provide direct personal support, in addition to money and supplies. I hope the comfort of knowing people have come near and far will provide emotional support to the refugees.”
Also in attendance is life-long New Yorker Elizabeth Szancer, who said she felt compelled to visit the border because her Holocaust survivor parents grew up in Krakow and Tarnow, nearby Polish towns. Poland has so far taken in more than 505,000 refugees from Ukraine.
Szancer said she has traveled to Poland “many, many times” but notes that this trip is unique.
“My parents were also refugees,” she said. “They came to New York in 1947 with nothing, not knowing if they would ever return home. So for me, helping is near and dear to my heart. Even when my father came here with nothing, one of the first things he did was send parcels back to refugees in Poland. Even though my parents had nothing, they still did everything they could to help refugees.
“There are a lot of great efforts going on but what makes this mission unique is how quickly we pulled everything together,” Szancer continued.
Also fluent in Polish, Szancer noted that she intends to help with translating, adding that she is slightly apprehensive about being so close to a war zone. “But I have many friends in Krakow and they all say they find it safe, so I believe them.”
“This is not a trip for the faint of heart,” Szancer continued. “Knowing myself, I am going to find this week extremely emotional but I want to face those emotions. They are nothing compared to what these people are enduring.”