Moving report on Passover with Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Sarah Livschitz, a member of Temple Sinai in Wellington who is currently studying in the rabbinic program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, wrote about her experience joining with Ukrainian refugees in Poland to celebrate Passover. Click on READ MORE to read Sarah's article. 

Ukrainian refugees in Poland celebrate Passover

We've just celebrated the holiday of Pesach, the holiday where we traditionally commemorate our freedom. We can understand Pesach as being about both "freedom from" - freedom from slavery, freedom from tyranny – and "freedom to" - freedom to be Jews, freedom to self-determination. Every year I find something in these themes that relates to my life at this moment. Often this is metaphorical. This year, as the Ukrainian people fight for their freedom and tens of thousands pour over the borders as refugees, the Pesach themes of freedom and liberation feel very literal. 

About a month before Pesach, a pop-up shop for Ukrainian olim (the nearly 15,000 refugees who have immigrated to Israel to escape the war) opened in Jerusalem one weekend. They needed extra volunteers, so I signed up with a few of my rabbinical student peers. Emotions were high in the store. "Freedom from" is a beautiful thing - they were free from deadly gunfire and constant danger. Yet it had come at a huge cost. The vast majority of olim who came to the store were women. Many of those who wanted to talk told us that they had been forced to make an impossible choice, leaving their husbands and houses in Ukraine to save their children. Some hadn't been able to contact relatives in Ukraine for days and didn't know if they were still alive. At best, they had brought a single suitcase with them, and the pop-up store - entirely set-up and stocked by a local Chabad house, who activated their members to donate the goods - provided an essential stop to stock up on soap, a shirt appropriate to the Middle Eastern climate, or a toy for their child. Almost none knew where they were going beyond the next few hours, and we were constantly asked for directions to obscure hotels that they were staying in for the night.

The experience stayed with me. A few weeks later, a colleague (Julia Ullman) asked me and another rabbinical student (Julie Fishbach) to accompany her in leading a Pesach seder for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. It was an incredible privilege. We are a people who have been refugees countless times since we crossed the Red Sea, chasing "freedom to" be ourselves despite what it has cost us. Many of us name familial generations not in people, but in countries and pogroms. In this light, "freedom to" means not just remembering what it feels like to be free, but also remembering what it feels like to not be free. Our experiences of slavery, both imagined and real, puts an obligation on us to help others similarly striving for freedom to be independent.

While in Poland, we spent a day working at the World Central Kitchen in Warsaw, where we manned the children's corner. The parents were so glad that their kids could forget the war and just play for a few hours. One image really stood out to me. This adorable child pulled a piece of white paper towards her and in a steady hand, she drew two big, identical hearts next to each other. The first, she coloured half blue and half yellow - the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The second, she coloured half red and half white - the colours of the Polish flag. Delighted with the outcome, she proudly showed it to me and asked to stick it up on the wall of the tent. It was hard to hold back tears.

The seder was organised by the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. The JCC has become a beacon for refugees during the invasion; turning overnight into a humanitarian relief powerhouse. Its director, Jonathan Ornstein, emphasizes that he is driven to help refugees because of his – and our – Jewish history. JCC Krakow is providing outsized support to refugees, housing hundreds of people in hostels every night and feeding thousands, as well as providing wrap-around support in the form of Polish language lessons, psychologists, and support workers. His efforts have been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, and he and his staff absolutely deserve all the praise they have received.

The seder itself was a chance for refugees that identified as Jewish to return to normality for a while as they participated in a familiar annual ritual. Prior to the invasion, there were between 49,000 and 400,000 Jews living in Ukraine (depending on how you count). There was a similarly wide - and delightful - variety of practice at the seder, from the community elder who wore a tallit for the entire evening and asked to bless the first cup of wine, to the people for whom this was clearly a less common experience. When Jonathan opened the seder by welcoming them into the community and acknowledging what they had been through, there wasn’t a dry eye. The room felt hollow with the absences of so many friends and family still in Ukraine or killed in the war. However, over the course of the evening, the air became more celebratory, and people increasingly volunteered to participate. Our translator – herself a Ukrainian refugee with a young child – spent the whole evening selflessly trying to make sure everyone was heard despite her own emotions. At the end of the evening, the tears returned and there were endless hugs and thanks to the JCC staff.

I'm now back in Israel, but I can't stop remembering the faces and thinking about the stories of those I've met. From the little girl at the train station to our translator at the seder, their strength and optimism was undeniable. Equally inspiring were the Polish people, who have mobilised as one to help their neighbours. They showed me that the Pesach story – “freedom from”, “freedom to” – continues to be a story of our people and of others we care about. They also showed the power of a small action in making a difference. If enough people donate a lunch, open their homes for a night, or offer a smile, we can collectively help each other to pass through anything. 

There are many organisations providing on-the-ground support to Ukrainian refugees, including World Central Kitchen, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. You can support their efforts at the following links:

World Central Kitchen

Joint Distribution Committee

World Union for Progressive Judaism

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