The Ukrainian refugee crisis on the eve of Passover

Delegations have been a regular sight in the airport since the start of the conflict. Our group was a small sampling of the 6,200 volunteers of United Hatzalah.

 REFUGEES BOARD a plane to Israel on one of United Hatzalah’s rescue flights. (photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)
REFUGEES BOARD a plane to Israel on one of United Hatzalah’s rescue flights.
(photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)

“This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread,which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.Let all who are hungry come and eat.Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.Ha Lachma Anya...”– Passover Haggadah

Why do we begin our Seder specifically by inviting the underprivileged to join us? It is this question and the answer to it that occupied my mind as I joined a delegation of volunteers who assisted at the Moldova-Ukraine border crossing, as thousands of refugees made their way to safety.

One reason given for this passage from the Pesach Seder is that the surest sign of a free person is his ability to consider others and share with them. When you are fighting for your very survival your only thought is to feed and free yourself. The final testament of freedom is a person’s ability to care about others.

I believe that not only is this true on an individual level but most certainly on a national level as well. Israel and the Jewish nation as a people are in the process of geula (Redemption). Living in Israel, I am surrounded by evidence that this is true. But leaving Israel to rescue Jews and non-Jews with an Israeli delegation was as significant a sign of redemption as anything taking place in Israel. Only a free nation works to set others free. Only the Jewish people with a State of Israel can be free as a state of mind, but also be free to bring others to freedom. That is because we have the power to determine what will happen to our people wherever they may be. We can not only rescue them (and others) from war, today we can bring them safely home. That is freedom.

So when offered the opportunity, I had to join the mission. As a part the of United Hatzalah delegation, the Israeli organization at the forefront of the humanitarian effort in Moldova, the message of the Haggadah became more poignant than ever. The impact of what we were doing could already be felt in the airport before we even boarded the Moldovan airline chartered flight. Operation Orange Wings was aptly named because the United Hatzalah volunteers all wore screaming orange puffer jackets meant we stood out like a sore thumb - quite literally - amongst the other travelers. “Are you the group that’s going to help the refugees?” asked a middle-aged couple on their way home to LA standing behind me on the security line. My 19-year-old son who was joining me answered yes. “Wow, that’s amazing. Thank you for going!”

 The United Hatzalah delegation ahead of departure to Moldova (credit: United Hatzalah Spokesperson) The United Hatzalah delegation ahead of departure to Moldova (credit: United Hatzalah Spokesperson)

Delegations have been a regular sight in the airport since the start of the conflict. Our group was a small sampling of the 6,200 volunteers of United Hatzalah – medics, doctors, nurses, paramedics and trauma therapists. There is no typical profile of a United Hatzalah volunteer, except of course their desire to drop everything at a moment’s notice to save lives.

I met volunteer medics that span the length and breadth and tapestry of our small country – the grandmother from Ma’aleh Adumim, originally from Denver, the physician assistant father from Karnei Shomron, originally from Calgary, the 25 year old post-army Israeli from Ramat Gan, the young religious father from Kiryat Malachi, the therapist from Eilat who runs a dolphin therapy clinic, and the list goes on... They had traveled from the corners of the country and left their families to participate in this mission.

Since this was a chartered flight, the plane was loaded with duffel bags of supplies and medical equipment to be left in Moldova. The return flight would be filled with refugees. We had the honor of being joined by Eli Beer, president of United Hatzalah, who gave an impassioned pep talk about our mission that set the tone for the rest of the trip. “We’re going to go work very hard helping people, rescuing people, saving people... we’re also going to bring people back to Israel - refugees, Holocaust survivors, women, children and babies.”

On the flight, Linor Attias, a version of Wonder Woman who would put Gal Gadot to shame, explained how originally the missions were flying on El Al planes and landing in Romania because the air space over Moldova was closed and Moldova airlines was not operating. Linor successfully negotiated with the Moldovan government to open its airspace specifically for United Hatzalah’s charter flights.

After landing, we boarded the buses that brought us to the heart of Chisinau, to an old Irish pub down the block from the Agudath Yisroel shul. The story behind the treif Irish pub turned kosher Israeli soup kitchen is that when Jewish refugees began crossing the border into Moldova they naturally made their way to the Jewish community looking for a safe haven. It wasn’t long before Kishinev Chief Rabbi Pinchas Saltzman realized he needed help. Rabbi Saltzman knew of the restaurant that had been closed for two years due to Covid and arranged to rent the space. With the help of United Hatzalah’s logistics team, the place was cleaned, kashered, and reopened as a soup kitchen to prepare between 5,000 - 6,000 meals a day for refugees and volunteers. United Hatzalah volunteers together with local Moldovans who wanted to help out worked around the clock as chefs and kitchen staff to ensure there was enough food for everyone.

The next morning we visited Rabbi Saltzman’s shul. Eli Beer and the Rabbi embraced like long-lost friends. Rabbi Saltzman who had been inundated with refugees sleeping in the shul and his home couldn’t feed them all or give them the medical attention they needed. He explained how United Hatzalah came to the rescue. 

Outside the shul, tables were set up with hot water, coffee, tea, cold drinks, and snacks, available to anyone. Across the street was a row of green tents erected by the municipality at the request of United Hatzalah. One tent housed a field hospital where medics and doctors treated patients, a few more were used by refugees for sleeping, and another was used for supply storage and donations. Inside the shul, volunteers were abuzz on their phones, going in and out of the command center they had set up on the second floor of the small building. From the outset, United Hatzalah set up WIFI in the shul and brought in computers and equipment so they could constantly monitor events on the ground. Some of the volunteers working there were Israeli medical students studying in Moldova who came forward to lend a hand.

Our group headed to the Palanca border about three hours from Chisinau. The scene was surprisingly calm but expectedly sad. A steady stream of women and children crossed the border almost in silence as the cold winds whipped around them. Elderly men and women, some with canes, others hunched over, walked slowly. Men ages 18-60 were not allowed to leave.

United Hatzalah volunteers who had been there the week before were still talking about the ten-year-old boy named Misha who crossed the border alone. His mother decided to stay back with his father and 18-year-old brother who weren’t allowed to leave. Misha agreed to do the journey solo. It took him several days to reach and then cross the border, but the volunteers met him and brought him on a charter flight to his 21-year-old sister in Israel. This was just one of countless success stories. The volunteers have treated hundreds of medical emergencies and chronic conditions, provided vital humanitarian relief, such as hot meals and warm clothes, they have rescued babies of Israeli parents born to surrogate mothers in Ukraine and they have chartered multiple flights bringing refugees to Israel. Each effort is led by a brave and selfless team of volunteers.

It was cold and the children were bundled up in hats and scarves and winter coats. The mothers looked stoic but managed to crack a smile when we offered them a snack, a blanket and hand warmers. The heaviness of their belongings and the weight of their family’s future rested squarely on their shoulders and it was visible on their faces. The children, in contrast, beamed as we handed them small dolls, stickers and candy.  I was struck by how each child made eye contact and said thank you.

Most of the refugees were not Jewish or Israeli. Yet, almost all of the volunteers on this border were. The Angels in Orange were there to help everyone but, like needles in a haystack, mixed in amongst the thousands of refugees were Israelis and Jews. In this case, the “needles” found us. They recognized the Israeli flags or were already aware that the orange jackets were from Israel. Some had Israeli passports. Some had relatives in Israel. If they met the criteria, they were offered seats on the chartered flight that was leaving the next day.

One image that really stood out for me at the border was the juxtaposition of the plight of these refugees with the heart-wrenching last scene of Fiddler on the Roof. The movie ends when the Jews are forced out of their hometown Anatevka in the late 1800s and find themselves homeless and hated like so many Jews before them. Fast forward to the year 2022. Jews may be forced to flee, crossing a border with nothing but a small suitcase, but they have a safe country and a loving home awaiting them. They are being evacuated by their brothers and sisters who have come to rescue them and bring them to safety. It is possible for only one reason: the existence of the state of Israel. The tragic story of the homeless wandering Jew is finally over.

Back at the shul the next morning, we helped some 160 refugees board the buses to the airport. It was only two days before Purim, so to promote some holiday cheer, the United Hatzalah volunteers started a circle of dancing and singing. Happy children danced in the middle with Eli Beer and his angels in orange while elderly women watched clapping and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” I could not imagine what they were feeling: hopefully, relief, but I must assume loss and fear, as well.

We arrived in Israel. What awaited the refugees outside the airport doors was incredible, and brought home, in the most literal sense, what I had been feeling. Throngs of teenagers dancing, singing, and waving huge Israeli flags formed two sides of an aisle. They came from all over the country to live this moment in history. Not just to experience it but to create it. To be able to tell their children and grandchildren that when Jews needed to be saved we brought them home to Israel. And we did it with fanfare, singing, dancing and flags. We did it in the light of day while the world watched.

I am in awe of our youth, their enthusiasm and their values. This is the spirit of the people the Ukrainian refugees will join this Pesach. A culture and a country where freedom is not just a personal feeling but a national pursuit. It is not just how we will feel at our seder, but it is our constant state of mind, as we seek out ways in which to help others and believe that we can.

This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.

The writer lives in Modi’in with her family. Together with her son, she recently joined a team of United Hatzalah volunteers, who traveled to Moldova to provide medical care and humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees. She serves as a member of the Israel Advisory Board for the organization.