Rabbi Cahana shares refugee woes

PHOTOS: Twenty-six Reform rabbis and cantors from across the United States and Israel traveled to Krakow, Poland, to bring assistance to Ukrainian refugees at the Krakow Jewish Commuinty Centre. They returned to their communities to share the refugees' stories. Below, Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Michael Cahana and his son, David Cahana, stand outside a humanitarian aid center near the Poland/Ukraine border.

Our rabbinic mission for Ukraine was called “Hineini” – “Here I Am,” the biblical answer to G-d’s call. Twenty-six Reform rabbis and cantors from across the United States and Israel traveled to Krakow, Poland, to answer the call of need. 
Refugees of Putin’s brutal war in their home country are streaming into Poland. More than three million refugees, almost all of them women and children, have arrived since the start of this war less than two months ago. Krakow alone, a city of 800,000, has absorbed 150,000 refugees. Yet, when you drive around the city, you see no bread lines. No one is sleeping on the street. There are no refugee camps. The people of Poland have opened their homes and their hearts to their neighbors to the east. They feel strongly the biblical commandment not to stand “idly by.”
But the need is still great.
We came to Poland just before Pesach to work with the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow. Being the nearest city to Auschwitz, the Holocaust feels very present in Krakow. The JCC was founded in 2008 by England’s Prince Charles in response to his meeting with several Polish Holocaust survivors. Since Poland’s transition to democracy in 1989, there has been a resurgence of Jewish life, but care for the survivors has remained an important mission for the JCC.
However, since the war in Ukraine began, the JCC has remade itself into a social service organization providing direct services – food, clothing, housing – to refugees and partnering with other nonprofits to be a frontline aid organization meeting refugees where they are and providing for their immediate and longer-term needs. As Jonathan Orenstein, the New York-born Executive Director of JCC Krakow, said to us about their new mission, “Because the world stood silent when we were in need, we cannot stand silent today.”
My colleagues and I were there with two purposes: to bring much needed supplies and funds, and to bring back our witness of the refugee crisis.
The mission was planned with little notice. In just the few weeks since I put out the call for supplies, we were overwhelmed with the response. We packed five large duffel bags with baby formula, disinfectants and antiseptics. I was able to carry about half of the total items donated. The rest were given to the local group Positive Charge PDX, which shipped all of the items to Poland. Alaska and Lufthansa airlines generously waived any excess baggage fees. I also carried a check for over $60,000 donated from across our community. Thank you to everyone who donated. Your generosity was echoed by communities from all across the U.S. Collectively our group brought some 2 tons of supplies and over $750,000!
My adult son, David, joined us as well, bringing his professional experience working with the houseless here in Portland and in Ann Arbor, where he now lives. He also carried supplies donated by a Portland resident.
There is much to tell about the experience: The festive atmosphere at the border was palpable as volunteers from Poland, Israel and the U.S. rushed to greet each refugee family crossing into Poland. The mission was to bring them food, toys and transportation to one of several nearby humanitarian aid centers. There they registered and received donated items from around the world to serve their needs along with further transportation to wherever they wanted to go. 
The most beautiful of these centers we toured was set up in an abandoned shopping mall in Krakow. There, volunteers of all nationalities sorted donations in the back. The front area where refugees entered was set up like any lovely department store – clothing on racks sorted by type and size, shoes filling shelves lining the wall, toys and baby supplies in bins within easy reach. There was a beautifully decorated and brightly lit play area for children and dressing rooms to try on clothes. The only things missing were cash registers. Refugees left with the things they needed and with their dignity. This, I thought, is how all aid for all refugees and for the houseless should be.
Also important was how lovingly and joyfully the volunteers from around the world went about their tasks. Young people from Israel dropped their busy lives and jumped on a plane for the privilege of greeting refugees at the border. In classic Israeli fashion, they had the prime real estate for their welcoming tent – right at the border fence! I met a woman from Colorado who volunteered with a Norwegian group called “A Drop in the Ocean.” We clergy from the United States helped host a pre-Passover seder with volunteers from Israel, Poland, Mexico and an Evangelical group from Canada who were helping refugees who wanted to make aliyah to Israel.
Most moving were our conversations with the refugees themselves. Among them was a young woman, Nastya Lasna, from the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. Before the war, Nastya was preparing to open a vegan bakery, which sounded very Portland. As the Russian bombardment neared, she fled with her 5-year-old daughter, forced to leave her husband and parents behind and carrying no more than a single suitcase. She found her way to Krakow and is now working at the JCC, helping other refugees. Through tears, she told us of the first Shabbat she and her daughter celebrated at the JCC and how much it meant to hear her daughter laugh and sing for the first time since their ordeal. 
Nastya comes from an Armenian and Jewish background. She said to us “this is the third genocide in my family.” But she is strong and confident, and with the help she has received she knows she will make a new life for her family in Krakow. Just after we left, we learned that her parents had escaped and joined her in time to celebrate the seder together at the JCC. “Once we were slaves, now we are free” must have resonated so strongly with their family.
We asked Nastya what message we could carry back to our U.S. communities. Without hesitating, she said, “Your help makes a difference. And now we know that we have friends.”

Ukrainian relief drive continues

Portlanders have donated generously to the nationwide Jewish Federation effort to distribute to partner organizations. These partners include Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), World ORT, United Hatzalah, Hillel International, Nefesh B’ Nefesh, HIAS, the Israel Trauma Coalition, Hadassah Medical Organization, Moishe House, Chabad and Shema Yisrael.

The needs are real and continue. Donate at jewishportland.org/ukraine-crisis.



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