Rabbis and cantors from the U.S. took supplies on a trip to see how the JCC in Krakow is responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.
Rabbis and cantors from the U.S. took supplies on a trip to see how the JCC in Krakow is responding to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.

‘It’s a privilege’: Bay Area rabbis in Poland bear witness to Ukrainian refugee crisis

“On Feb 23, everything was wonderful in my life. On Feb. 24, my life changed completely.”

Those words from a Ukrainian refugee, about the day when Russia invaded Ukraine, really struck Rabbi Jill Perlman of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah. Perlman was one of 27 rabbis and cantors who traveled together this month to Poland as guests of the Krakow Jewish Community Center. They were there to bear witness to the humanitarian crisis and the resilience of the refugees, and to bring the stories of what they saw and heard back to their congregations.

“It is always powerful, and it’s a privilege, certainly, to bear witness to events like this,” Perlman said.

Rabbi Jill Perlman of Walnut Creek's Temple Isaiah visited the border town of Przemyśl in Poland near Ukraine
Rabbi Jill Perlman of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah visited the border town of Przemyśl in Poland near Ukraine.

Rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oakland’s Temple Sinai and interim rabbi at Alameda’s Temple Israel, and Rabbi Darryl Crystal, senior interim rabbi of San Mateo’s Peninsula Temple Beth El, were also on the trip, which was organized by three Reform organizations: the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. From April 10 to 14, the clergy visited several refugee hubs and volunteer centers to get a sense of a crisis that has caused more than 5 million people to flee Ukraine, about 9 percent of the country’s population. About 2.8 million have crossed the border into Poland, a country of fewer than 38 million.

“Think of a city the size of Chicago, and one day everybody’s leaving with just one suitcase,” Crystal said. “And they all got on buses and came to California.”

Many of the refugees are separated families, as men of fighting age are required to stay in Ukraine to help the war effort, leaving mothers forced to take their children to safety.

Rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oakland's Temple Sinai and interim rabbi at Alameda's Temple Israel, with donated toys in Poland.
Rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oakland’s Temple Sinai and interim rabbi at Alameda’s Temple Israel, with donated toys in Poland.

“It really hits you when you see it’s women, children and elderly,” Chester said.

All three rabbis said the relief provided by international agencies, organizations and the Polish government is astounding, with everyone working in tandem to provide refugees with what they need, whether that’s medical attention, housing or transportation to friends and family across Europe.

“It’s just an incredible relief operation,” Crystal said.

Because so many refugees arrive with so few possessions, the clergy brought with them money (approximately $750,000 in donations) and supplies — 2 tons in total, Perlman said.

“Underwear, Tylenol, menstrual pads, tampons, clothes, shoes … what folks might need when they run,” she said.

The supplies were donated to the JCC in Kraków, one of the many hubs for refugee support — for all refugees, not just Jewish ones. Perlman said she spoke to an older Jewish woman in Kraków about that.

A sign that says "Welcome" in Ukrainian hangs over the entrance to the Krakow JCC. (Photo/Rabbi Jill Perlman)
A sign that says “Welcome” in Ukrainian hangs over the entrance to the Krakow JCC.
(Photo/Rabbi Jill Perlman)

“She was all for it,” Perlman said. “She was incredibly proud! She said, ‘We need to do for them what no one did for us.’”

The group visited Przemyśl, a city on the border where refugees cross into Poland. There, Chester said, he saw a Star of David on an Israeli aid tent, and next to it an Egyptian flag and a Sikh-sponsored aid agency.

“That really, for me, summed up what was going on, with volunteers from all over the world of every different religion,” he said.

The rabbis also visited a mall that had been converted into a “store” where refugees could come and pick up clothes for free.

“You can take as much as you want except for underwear,” Crystal said. “With that there’s a limit. And [volunteers] go through 10,000 pairs of underwear a day. They have bags of things to be sorted.”

Rabbi Darryl Crystal of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo at the JCC in Krakow.
Rabbi Darryl Crystal of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo at the JCC in Krakow.

But for the Bay Area clergy on the trip, it wasn’t only about refilling warehouses with supplies, it was also about bearing witness. They all said their positions as spiritual and community leaders give them an opportunity to amplify the story of the work at the border.

“We’re coming back to give testimony,” Chester explained.

That’s all the more important, he said, as the war drags on.

“What begins to happen after a while is it leaves the front pages of the newspaper, and [then] it leaves people’s minds,” he said.

But for now, the clergy’s congregants — as well as strangers — are looking for an opportunity to help. When Crystal was at the San Francisco airport with five duffel bags labeled “Ukraine relief,” a woman walked up to him. She’d noticed the bags.

“[She] gave me a $50 bill and said, ‘Give this to help people,’” he recalled.

Congregants from Peninsula Temple Beth El pack supplies for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. (Photo/Rabbi Darryl Crystal)
Congregants from Peninsula Temple Beth El pack supplies for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. (Photo/Rabbi Darryl Crystal)

That gesture summed up so much, he said.

“On a certain level that’s what this trip was about,” he added. “It was about making people aware.”

All three rabbis tied that mission to Jewish values.

“This is something that needs our attention, and especially for the Jewish community this is a meaningful moment,” Perlman said. “It’s not lost on me that I was there just before Pesach.”

In fact, at the end of the trip, as the rabbis were preparing to return to their homes and celebrate Passover, they held an early seder at the JCC.

“It was full of ruach,” Chester said, using the Hebrew word for spirit. “I don’t know what other word to use but ruach. You could touch the spirit there, it was palpable.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.