Much more than sports: Maccabi Europe’s dedication to helping Ukrainian refugees

“To this day, Maccabi is still helping people get out of Ukraine and getting them situated," Renberg said.

COMPETITORS FROM Ukraine and the US compete during the fencing competition at the 14th European Maccabi Games in 2015 in Berlin. (photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
COMPETITORS FROM Ukraine and the US compete during the fencing competition at the 14th European Maccabi Games in 2015 in Berlin.
(photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Laura Renberg is the Head of Communications and Programming at Maccabi Europe – a job that normally involves organizing sporting events, putting together programs, and helping clubs with communication and finances. On February 24, she was presented with another – and far more urgent – responsibility.

Renberg recalled that fateful day when Russia invaded Ukraine.

“The chairperson of Maccabi Ukraine called David Beesemer, the chairman of Maccabi Europe, and said, ‘war is breaking out, we have a bad situation, and we will need help. We don’t know what kind of help that will be, but please be ready to help out.’”

Beesemer did not waste even a second, setting up the Maccabi World Ukraine Taskforce, which started out as a WhatsApp group with Maccabi leaders in the countries surrounding Ukraine.

“Firstly, we made clear that we would help Jews and non-Jews alike because a refugee is a human, and we were not going to distinguish between human and human,” Renberg said. “Within 24 hours we had two tour buses full of refugees from Odessa who went to Bucharest. A mix of Maccabi Odessa and people not involved with Maccabi were on the bus. Someone in Romania took them on a different bus to Bucharest. While en route, we helped people figure out where their next place would be. We helped people make aliyah and go to Germany as well as other European countries.”

Obviously, the extraction process was a team effort with many Maccabi employees contributing.

“The president of Maccabi Europe, Dagmar Gavornikova, who also heads Maccabi Slovakia, was in contact with me to figure out what people can do, how they can do it, and where they can go,” Renberg recalled. “Dagmar was geographically better positioned to know what direction people should go. People knew how to reach us; our phone number was going around in Ukraine. With the Help of Maccabi World Union (MWU), we managed to get many people to Israel. Many went to Holland, Germany and Italy as well. A lot of them were Maccabi Union members, but a lot were not. We were working with MWU on a daily basis to help people make aliyah. It was a very intense process that a lot of people collaborated on.”

The work did not stop after assisting the two busloads from Odessa. Other Ukrainians needed help escaping as well as managing in their new temporary homes.

“To this day, Maccabi is still helping people get out of Ukraine and getting them situated. Within 72 hours of starting, we had students in their new schools. I had a woman call me with a four-year-old boy who was driving west. She said, ‘I got your number via the Maccabi network, I can go west or south. Where should I go?’ In the background I was hearing gunshots, and thinking, ‘how am I supposed to know where to send these people?’ Dagmar looked and said, ‘if she goes west the roads will be bombarded and she’ll be shot at, so she needs to go south to Moldova.’ In the end, she made it to Moldova.”

Maccabi Holland put up 30 refugees in an Amsterdam hotel whose owner generously offered to open the doors to whomever needed. A neighboring municipality also sent Ukrainian refugees to the same hotel and within days, Maccabi Holland was responsible for 500 refugees, of whom only 25% were Jewish. Thanks to an extensive volunteer force, Maccabi Holland has been able to attend to all of the refugees’ needs.

 Renberg explained how “during the pandemic we were not allowed to do team sports, so we set up a volunteer network to deliver matzah, walk dogs, deliver food and do whatever needed to be done. We put in the Maccabi Holland WhatsApp group that we needed help when the 300 refugees came to the hotel. Within a few minutes, there were too many volunteers coming! A group of 110 people who spoke Russian or Ukrainian were on a rotating schedule to translate. We had clothing donations, food donations and even set up a school.”

Despite the incredible amount of time and effort required from each volunteer, none of them hesitated when asked to help.

For some members of Maccabi Holland, family history inspired them to contribute.

“It’s simply what we do,” Renberg stated. “It was what needed to be done. Nobody had to be asked twice. It’s the Maccabi spirit. Many people said, ‘when my grandparents came back from [the Holocaust], nobody helped them,’ or ‘they were welcomed so nicely.’ It was never a question of if we should do this. David [Beesemer] set the tone from day one, saying that ‘We are helping. These are our brothers and sisters.’”

Working with refugees has resulted in mixed emotions for Renberg. While she is immensely proud about what she and the other volunteers have accomplished, this pride is balanced with the realization that millions of people are suffering.

“Unfortunately, our amazing work is because of a war. People are losing their lives. A woman came up to me in the hotel and showed me a picture on her phone, and said, ‘Laura that’s my house.’ It was a pile of bricks. It had been bombed,” she somberly reflected.

“We saw the emotional rollercoaster that people were going through. They were on the road for weeks at a time, sometimes sleeping on train platforms. People came in with grey faces and were tired. After a few days, they had more energy and were walking with more color in their face. They now have to figure out what they are going to do next. The problem is that our work is wonderful, but the conflict is still ongoing.”

With the help of Maccabi Europe, several members of the Maccabi Ukraine board, including its chairman, managed to escape the country.

These Ukrainians are leading their delegation of 39 participants, who are competing in spite of the turmoil in their home country.

Renberg encouraged participants in this year’s Maccabiah to keep in mind all of those who have suffered and continue to struggle as a result of the war.

“I wish everyone a wonderful Maccabiah. People will have the experience of a lifetime and make friendships for life, but we are also still thinking about all the people who have lost their lives and who are still fighting.”