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An extraordinary journey to bear witness to the struggle and strife of displaced Ukrainians — and to comfort them as well as observe relief efforts on their behalf — took place recently, as a group of dedicated individuals from Temple Emanu-El’s congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan traveled to the border of Ukraine and Poland amid the war in Ukraine.
The mission was one of faith, compassion and care toward the innocents of Ukraine, whose country was invaded and torn asunder by Russian forces beginning on Feb. 24, 2022 — over 130 days ago now.
When most Americans were just beginning to embrace the beginning of summer on Memorial Day weekend this year, a group from Temple Emanu-El — New York City’s leading Reform Jewish congregation — traveled to Ukraine instead.
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What they saw and learned amid their travels has stayed with them since.
Martin Bell, one of the travelers, told Fox News Digital in a recent phone interview that it was the inspiring words of his senior rabbi, Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson — in a message to temple members — that made him choose to leave behind the comforts of home to travel to Ukraine on behalf of those suffering.
“When I read the rabbi’s message,” Bell said about the trip and the meaningfulness of it, “my feeling was, ‘How could I not go?'”
“As we watch with grave concern the events unfolding in Ukraine,” shared Rabbi Davidson in a message to members of Temple Emanu-El, “many of us feel helpless, wishing to be of aid to the millions who are suffering the atrocities of the unjust war. Individually and communally, we have sent funds and goods to the organizations engaged in critical relief work, and we will continue to do so.”
“And now,” Rabbi Davidson continued, “we have another way to answer conscience’s call.”
“It’s a story that should be told. It’s a story that must be told … We have the responsibility to tell others what we saw” in Ukraine, Martin Bell told Fox News Digital.
The rabbi went on, “Together we will bring much-needed supplies, offer comfort to those fleeing the war — and bear witness both to the suffering and to the extraordinary efforts of the agencies offering relief from that suffering.”
Bell told Fox News Digital the rabbi’s message deeply inspired him and others.
“There are three key messages there. One is to help end the suffering,” said Bell, “and we saw that. We talked with one refugee who had spent 18 hours traveling with her daughter to the border” — in order to flee the violence and destruction, he said.
“And she must’ve seen things that were so horrific” — including the gruesome deaths of fellow Ukrainians — that all she said, bluntly and directly, to the group was, “We hate them all,” Bell related.
The woman was referring to the Russians who were trying to destroy Ukraine and who were brutally killing innocent people and wrecking property.
Bell added how important it was for the rabbi to share that the temple’s team would “bear witness to the extraordinary efforts” of the relief efforts toward these people.
“You would think this would have made us mournful” in terms of seeing the charitable operations required for the Ukrainian people, Bell said.
“It was the opposite. It was so inspiring. We came back renewed, just to see the way the Polish people are supporting these immigrants” — and have been supporting them and helping them since the very early days of the war, he said.
The group from Temple Emanu-El brought duffel bags filled with donated supplies for the desperate Ukrainians who have fled for their lives.
“There are about 5 million people who have left Ukraine,” said Bell. Some “3.5 million of them went to Poland.”
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The group from Temple Emanu-El brought duffel bags filled with donated supplies from temple members for the desperate Ukrainians who have fled for their lives, said Bell.
Trip members from the temple had their eyes opened at virtually every stop along the way, Bell indicated.
“We were right at the border, right at the checkpoint where people come through,” and “right there, there are dozens of tents” filled with volunteers and staffers to help the displaced, said Bell. Tents are filled with food, clothing, medical supplies, SIM cards for cell phones — and much more of the items the Ukrainians need, he said.
Some of these operations are run by NGOs; others are run by everyday people.
Every place the group went, Bell related, they saw relief efforts that had been “started initially by everyday Poles” — and they have continued to run them to help the displaced Ukrainians, he said (the displaced are mostly women and children).
These everyday people “just saw the need and rose to the challenge,” said Bell.
He added, “The part about bearing witness — that’s what really resonated with me and with everyone in our group. In part, that’s maybe a Jewish reaction in a world where there are Holocaust deniers,” said Bell. “We wanted to go there so that we could then come back and tell other people what we saw.”
“It’s a story that should be told. It’s a story that must be told,” he also said.
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Fox News Digital also spoke to Wendy Gerber, another temple member who made the journey.
“We can’t really capture the devastation and destruction that has occurred in their lives.”
“It was wonderful” to be able to help the Ukrainian refugees, said Gerber, though “we can’t really capture the devastation and destruction that has occurred in their lives.”
She shared some examples.
“I became very close with a refugee named Sarah, who came from Mariupol. She’s 37 and has three children, one of whom is autistic. And they stayed in their home as long as they could. [But] when the shelling” moved dangerously close to them,” added Gerber, “they had to head to the basement of a friend’s house, “where they stayed for more than 30 days along with three other families.”
“Things just continued to get progressively worse — and they knew they needed to leave,” said Gerber.
But when the young Ukrainian mother “recounted the story of her decision to leave, she was in tears with us,” said Gerber.
“The green corridors were supposed to be safe evacuation zones for the Ukrainians,” she said — “but the Russians were still shooting at Ukrainians,” she said.
“Finally, they made the decision that they needed to go” and that they had to risk it, Gerber said.
“The green corridors were supposed to be safe evacuation zones for the Ukrainians.”
“And as they were driving out of Mariupol, they were passing bodies on the street — and I can’t even imagine how difficult that must have been. I have three children myself,” added Gerber, “and it’s hard enough for someone to do something like that on their own — but just knowing that their children, too, had to experience this must have been truly excruciating.”
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She said the family’s first stop on the way out was at a synagogue — where they paused for a blessing, said Gerber. “When I learned that, I thought, ‘Wow, these are really devoted, devout people,’” she said.
The woman’s husband actually drove Sarah and their three children to safety — said Gerber — and then he went back into Ukraine.
And he brought 25 other people out of Ukraine to safety, added Gerber.
“What was amazing to me is that Sarah and I have stayed in very close touch since we parted in Warsaw,” said Gerber. “And on an almost daily basis, she’ll send me notes, photos — it’s just heartbreaking.”
The woman saw her former apartment building — her home — get demolished, she said. They were able to escape just with some clothing, some papers — but not much more. “They left behind laptops, photographs, all of their treasured items,” said Gerber.
She shared that Sarah showed her a photograph of her son, who is 12 — and how, to this day, he carries a piece of shrapnel in his hand.
“Or maybe God does like me — because I’m alive today.”
The boy said to her, “Why is it that God doesn’t like me, [since] he destroyed my building and he destroyed my home?” But then he also said to his mother, “Or maybe God does like me — because I’m alive today.”
Gerber said she was extremely moved that a young boy would have to think such thoughts — the type of thoughts no young person should have to contemplate.
She said she spent time drawing and coloring with some of the young children in one of the shelters — “and they were just having a lighthearted, friendly conversation as they were drawing.”
Gerber later learned from one of the people at the Jewish agency that what the children were talking about — and they were only about 7 or 8 years old, she said — was this: One of the kids had “only brought one toy with her from home, because the rest of the toys had been blown up.”
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Said Rabbi Davidson at a Friday evening temple service in June as he described the extraordinary trip, “It was a congregational effort.”
“We just know from our own experience that bearing witness is a sacred duty.”
He thanked members of the congregation who donated supplies that were flown to Ukraine and distributed to the needy and displaced. He said there were also monetary donations made in the form of grants.
“For each of us who made this journey, the experience was a profound one,” said Rabbi Davidson, “in ways we anticipated it would be — and in ways we did not.”
“We made the journey to bring relief,” said Rabbi Davidson.
“But we also made it to bear witness to the suffering of the Ukrainian people, in a world that too often not only turns a blind eye to human suffering but allows it to be written out of history altogether. We just know from our own experience that bearing witness is a sacred duty.”
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He also wanted to remember “the extraordinary heroism of countless Polish citizens” who are helping the Ukrainian people on a daily basis, giving of themselves and thinking of others, day after day — and bringing hope for “a brighter tomorrow.” To this as well, said the rabbi, it is important to bear witness.
In Krakow especially, the group experienced a “growing, vibrant, young Jewish community.”
Rabbi Davidson also noted that in Krakow especially, the group experienced a “growing, vibrant, young Jewish community.”
Also, the group realized that “Poland today is not the hotbed of anti-Semitism we might suspect it to be because of 20th century history there. There is, in fact, an increasing interest in Judaism within the country because of the importance of Jewish cultural life through centuries of Polish history prior to the Holocaust.”
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Finally, he said, “all of us felt an extraordinary sense of pride in the work of the Polish Jewish community to care for Ukrainians of every faith.”
It was “a powerful journey,” said the rabbi.