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I’m a rabbi in Warsaw. I’m terrified for the future of Ukraine — and the free world

Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, 03/03/2022

Rabbi Yehoshua EllisI live in Poland and work as a rabbi in the local Jewish community, but I’ve been paying close attention to Ukraine since Putin’s last invasion in 2014.

I was invigorated by the election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019, and even more impressed when he stood up to President Donald Trump, refusing to take part in a quid pro quo for American arms — and I told him so when we met in Krakow in early 2020.

Here in Warsaw, we don’t have a front-row seat to Putin’s latest atrocity, but we are dealing directly with its spillover. More than a half a million refugees have already fled Ukraine, and over half of them have crossed into Poland. We have been busy moving humanitarian aid into Ukraine and people out, especially Jews.

As a student of Central European history, this invasion scares me to the core. The last time Europe saw something like this, 20 million people died on this side of the Atlantic — and don’t get me started on what happened to the Jews.

But our situation this time is remarkably different: at stake this time is not the survival of the Jewish people, but the survival of the free world.

While there are already thousands of Jewish refugees in Poland from Ukraine, they are refugees because they are Ukrainian, not because they are Jewish. Unlike virtually every other time in Jewish history, Jews are fleeing because the entire country is under attack, not because Jewish businesses and properties are being specifically targeted.

Volunteers in Warsaw deal with the sudden influx of Ukrainian refugees

Throughout Europe, especially in Poland and Moldova, a broad network of local and international Jewish organizations have mobilized to help refugees. The Joint Distribution Committee has provided psychologists to work within the refugee population, while the Jewish Community of Warsaw and a myriad Polish Jewish organizations are organizing volunteers and professionals to assist.

Barring bureaucratic obstacles, Ukrainian Jews also have a place they can settle permanently — Israel — where they have familiar and tribal bonds. The Jewish Agency is working hard to ensure that potential olim are provided for while they wait to fly to Israel from Poland.

We are trying to respond to the Jewish needs of the refugees as well. The war is unlikely to end soon, and the Straus-Amiel emissary organization, of which I am a proud graduate, is employing its global network to organize Ukrainian and Russian speaking rabbis to come read the Megillah and provide holiday programming during the upcoming Purim holiday. We have also upped our communal matzah order and are buying Haggadot in Russian in preparation for Passover.

Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw
Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw

We don’t know what this war will bring next, but we do know that the holidays are on the way. In these projects we are indebted to the generous assistance of the whole Jewish world.

I don’t doubt that antisemitism is alive and well in Ukrainian society and that the indignities might be daily — I get it, I live in Poland. And yet, the level of acceptance and integration of Jews into Ukrainian society after the fall of the Soviet Union has been remarkable. After all, the main hero emerging from this crisis is Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew. And that clearly demonstrates the kind of society that Ukraine is: a democratic society based on citizenship.

This is an example the whole world should learn from. and what makes Ukraine such a threat to Putin. And this is also the reason that the free world needs to do all that we can to support Ukraine.

The war being fought in Ukraine is a battle for a small country that believes in the value of democracy, citizenship and the rule of law. But it is also a battle for the soul of the world and international law.

Freedom and democracy are the values that have allowed Jews and Jewish life to flourish throughout the world, and we must defend them at all costs.

Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis is a Rabbi in the Jewish Community of Warsaw and a graduate of the Ohr Torah Stone Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Program.

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