Her name is Bella. She is 87 years old and lived in Odesa, Ukraine. Her first memories were of German bombs destroying her city as she and her family fled east. Now, 80 years later, she again heard the same sounds and once again felt her city shake from bombs. She is a refugee again, but this time her destination is Israel.
Lilli is a doctor with two daughters and a dog. A month ago, as her electricity went out and a bomb destroyed a neighboring building, she had to ask herself a question that Jews have had to ask for centuries: Is it safer to stay in my basement or to flee? She woke up her daughter, packed up the dog and drove for 14 days as her husband stayed behind. She is not sure if she will be able to practice medicine in Israel, but she wants her daughters to grow up in Israel, and the family will be flying there as soon as they can find a crate large enough to hold their dog.
Finally, let me tell you about four-year-old Rina. Rina does not know much about Israel but did say that she likes Israeli chocolate more than Ukrainian chocolate. She was crying so, with her mother’s permission, I taught her how to play Angry Birds on my iPad. She told me that her mother says that she will be safe in Israel, and that nobody will hurt her. I smiled and said a silent prayer that her mother is right.
Belle, Lilli, and Rina are just three of the courageous Jewish refugees whom I met during a whirlwind trip last week to Poland, Hungary and Israel, where I got a firsthand look (along with leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America) at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s rescue and aliyah (immigration to Israel) operations amid the war in Ukraine.
Since the war began, the Jewish Agency has received over 30,000 calls through its emergency hotline for the Ukrainian Jewish community, organized 400 rescue buses out of Ukraine, arranged more than 70 aliyah flights to Israel, and processed more than 10,000 olim (immigrants) from Ukraine and Russia.
Yet, we can never forget that this is about more than numbers, every refugee matters. The stories of Belle, Lilli and Rina pay eloquent tribute to the Jewish tradition that “whoever saves one life... saves an entire world,” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
I stood at the border crossing at Medyka, which stands between Poland and Ukraine. I am told it was a relatively quiet day, but a steady stream of refugees walked through. There I saw something remarkable. When every single Ukrainian refugee crosses the border, the absolute first thing that he or she sees is the Israeli flag.
Think about that for a moment. This is a conflict that has seen five million refugees with only a fraction of them being Jews. To put it mildly, to be a Jew in Ukraine has not always been seen as a badge of honor. Yet, every single person who walked past that booth knew that the Jews of Ukraine have a country and a people who care about their safety. This is not 1942. There is a Jewish state that is there for every one of us, if we need it.
I also had the privilege of visiting The Jewish Agency’s hotel in Warsaw, where so many future olim are staying as they await their flights. Our staff, working closely with the Israeli government, took us through the entire experience of the Ukrainian Jewish refugee – arriving at the hotel, being given your room, interviewing for citizenship, and preparing for life in Israel. I knew beforehand that the olim were almost entirely women, children, and senior citizens, but still could not shake the impression that they could have been any one of us.
These are doctors, lawyers, and students. Many of them speak English. They have smartphones and wear fashionable clothes. And one day, they woke to learn that their country was no longer a safe place for them or their children. Their fathers, brothers, boyfriends and sons are still in Ukraine due to compulsory military service, and they think about them constantly.
If this war is showing the worst of humanity, it is also providing us with real bright lights of human kindness and compassion. It is speaking truth to the wisdom of the sages that every Jew is responsible for one another. Indeed, whoever saves one life saves an entire world.
The writer is head of North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.