"Human beings are capable of horrendous evil but they're also capable of remarkable generosity."
From the troubling to the uplifting, we've all been flooded with stories and images coming out of Russia and Ukraine in the past three weeks. Many people, safely in Montreal, feel that all they can do is doomscroll or watch the news.
For three Montreal-based rabbis, this simply wasn't enough. They went to Poland to help refugees fleeing Ukraine, and have now come home to share what they saw.
The situation in Medyka, Poland
"I've had the opportunity to visit Poland many times over the last 20 years, and it's a country that's been transformed by this crisis," Rabbi Reuben Poupko of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Côte-Saint-Luc said. "We're talking not about hundreds or thousands, but tens of thousands every day."
"We walked to the border in the town of Medyka and walking in the opposite direction away from the border was just clusters of families," Rabbi Adam Scheier, of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, explained. These families consisted of elders, women and children, "each person holding one bag over their shoulders and making their way into an uncertain future."
Rabbis Poupko and Scheier were joined by Rabbi Mark Fishman of Congregation Beth Tikvah Ahavat Shalom Nusach Hoari in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, along with Rabbi Scheier's 15-year-old daughter. They spent several days assisting incoming refugees however they could — often with food, blankets, and encouragement.
The Polish people have risen to the challenge of supporting Ukrainians running from war. "How the country has responded is really an inspiration," said Rabbi Poupko. Polish citizens are hosting strangers in their homes; children are donating toys to refugee kids. Rabbi Poupko described a "wave of volunteers" at the border. "Human beings are capable of horrendous evil but they're also capable of remarkable generosity. And you really see both sides of that reality at the border."
The Jewish diaspora's response
For many Jews, the thought of train stations in Poland brings up thoughts of the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were forced onto trains heading for concentration camps. "Standing in those same train stations and to see trains filled with people not going to their death but going to their freedom was an extraordinary lesson not only for my daughter but for all of us," said Rabbi Scheier.
According to Rabbi Scheier, the Jewish community in Warsaw has been hard at work welcoming Ukrainian Jews into the city. March 16 was Purim, a Jewish holiday known for games, laughter and sweet treats called hamantaschen. "The community [in Warsaw] usually hosts a Purim party for one or two hundred people," Rabbi Scheier explained. "This year's hosted thousands." The community anticipates an equally large Passover seder in mid-April.
Here at home, the Jewish community across North America is advocating for additional support for Ukrainian refugees through the Joint Distribution Committee, among other avenues.
"Our community teaches this ethic: you show up. Just to be there was really important to us. To be there for the people there but also to be there as a witness to this horrific point in history," said Rabbi Scheier.
How people can help in Montreal
"It's not reasonable to ask people to go to Poland and volunteer. Donate to the cause, and advocate for acceptance of refugees in Canada," Rabbi Poupko urged. "There are scores and scores of aid organizations on the ground helping."
"There's a role to play for everyone in Canada, in terms of donating to the organizations that are on the front lines, in terms of advocating for the government to accept more people from Ukraine at this point," Rabbi Poupko added.
"Get out there and start shouting. Let people know that this is completely unacceptable and that we care deeply about these refugees," said Rabbi Scheier, calling on Canadians to advocate for government action. "You don't just have to scroll through social media. You don't just have to agonize within the comfort of one's own home."
"The Western world has responded in an extraordinary way, well beyond what Putin could have ever anticipated," Rabbi Scheier said, "but we could always do more and we need to do more."
This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.