Operation Embrace means we need to welcome refugees warmly - opinion

Many refugees are arriving to Ukraine with almost nothing, and they need much help.

 A FAMILY of 12 Ukrainian refugees from Odessa is set to partake in a Shabbat meal. (photo credit: DOR TEVET, RESIDENT OF GAN SHMUEL)
A FAMILY of 12 Ukrainian refugees from Odessa is set to partake in a Shabbat meal.
(photo credit: DOR TEVET, RESIDENT OF GAN SHMUEL)

The news out of Ukraine is tragic, devastating and unimaginable. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming and the pent-up adrenaline of the call to action is brewing inside of me. Prayer is what I turn to and believe in with all of my heart, but it’s not enough.

This past Friday, I received a phone call from Rabbi Uzi and Leora Levian of Caesarea, saying that a family of 12 Ukrainian refugees from Odessa had arrived a few days ago in Israel. The family was warmly received and was provided temporary housing and appliances by members of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. However, the family was in need of clothing, toys, toiletries and other basic needs. The ages of the children ranged from two through 19. This family has one son, who made Aliyah and lives in Netanya, and another son, David, who is currently a lone soldier and is doing his military service in a paratrooper unit. We were informed that this family is traditional and needed kosher food, utensils and religious items necessary to celebrate shabbat in just a few hours.

My husband, Rabbi Joel Tessler, and my family went into action immediately. We reached out to our community in Caesarea via WhatsApp groups and made phone calls to close friends. The response came within minutes. Food, clothing, toys and other essential items for each member of the family were piled up by my front door and all was delivered within 3 hours of the original call to action. It was record-breaking chessed (acts of lovingkindness).

Organizing assistance to a vulnerable population is something that I am familiar with, since I founded the nonprofit Operation Embrace/Mivtza Hibuk over 20 years ago to help survivors of terror attacks in Israel move forward. We have helped thousands of families over the course of time.

We packed up two cars, our car and the car of our friends who were visiting with us, former Florida congressman Robert Wexler and his wife Laurie. We arrived at Gan Shmuel to find the unit of paratroopers who are serving with David there and ready to help with anything and everything. They emptied our cars and we all rolled up our sleeves and divided and conquered. These amazing young men were shlepping (lugging) refrigerators, stove tops, beds, blankets, pots and pans, and the like, into what was formerly a gan (pre-school) at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel.

 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)

Although we do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, the hugs, the smiles and the tears were understood and felt by all. This is but one family who escaped the horrors of war, but there are thousands of other families who are looking to escape the carnage. All of us are looking for some way to respond to this mind-boggling crisis. Maybe the best response is to look for opportunities to do simple acts of kindness.

Equally important is to provide these families with dignity. Although we want to bring truckloads of items, it is crucial to empower them and not overwhelm them. Chesed, too, must have boundaries. They have lost their homes, their businesses, and have been separated from their family and friends. We must listen to what their needs are (with translators nearby), be sensitive to how they feel, and we must do our best to help them make a life in Israel and to restore some of the dignity that they have lost.

It says in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), to save/help one life is like saving an entire world. We were reminded this past Friday that kol Yisrael arayvim, zeh la’zeh, that each of us is responsible for one another.

The writer is executive director of Operation Embrace.