As you receive this note, we are aboard a plane on our way home to Toronto from Poland. For the past two days, we have been here as part of a Jewish Federations of North America leadership mission—meeting with Jewish refugees who have fled the war in Ukraine, as well as our partner organizations working around the clock to save lives.
We came here to show our community’s solidarity, to ensure UJA’s emergency investments are being optimized to meet the needs, and to better understand this rapidly evolving crisis. What we didn’t expect was a powerful lesson—one that feels fitting on Purim—of what it means to be Jewish in 2022.
At multiple border crossings, the first thing one sees when leaving Ukraine and entering Poland is an extraordinary image: an Israeli flag waving proudly. Each one is planted next to a transit centre staffed by the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), funded by UJA and Jews worldwide. Every day, their teams greet a sea of women, children, and elderly fleeing Ukraine, painfully separated from sons, husbands, and fathers required to remain in the country. For the thousands of Jews escaping the terror of war, the flag is a beacon of safety no less than the border itself.
For most who are arriving, it was the life-saving support of the Jewish Agency and JDC—from food and supplies to evacuation—that enabled them to make it to the border. Amid desperate conditions, the organizations are continuing to serve as a lifeline for the tens of thousands of Jews who remain in Ukraine.
Once arriving at a transit centre, the needs of refugees are triaged. Food, water, and medical and psychological support is provided as they await the next step in their journey: a bus trip to accommodations secured by the Jewish Agency and JDC in Poland’s cities. While supporting Jewish refugees, no one is turned away from help at the transit centres—an example of the impact of the Jewish people beyond our community.
For Jews seeking to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel), the Jewish Agency guides them through the process—from documentation to mass air lifts to eventual resettlement in Israel. More than 7,000 have already been processed for Aliyah, with tens of thousands expected to come in a growing wave from Ukraine. Tens of thousands more are likely to make Aliyah from Russia as the country slips deeper into political instability, economic ruin, and isolation.
Many of us have family roots from Poland and Ukraine. Could our ancestors have ever imagined a world in which the flag of a sovereign Jewish state would be flown on the soil of Eastern Europe as a symbol of rescue? That the Jewish people could send airplanes to bring Jewish refugees from the edge of a warzone to a secure and thriving Israel?
It’s much more than a flag. It’s a symbol that the condition of the Jewish people has been radically transformed. In ordinary places and times, we risk taking this truth for granted. But it becomes crystal clear at the border of chaos and destruction.
On Tuesday, we went to Lublin and a nearby border crossing to meet with Jewish refugees. We spoke with mothers who desperately checked their phones for any updates from husbands still in Ukraine, knowing that the sirens and shelling often mean they just can’t connect. They struggled to keep their children entertained amid the wait. For their part, the kids lit up at the sight of the beautiful cards we shared—letters from the other side of the world just for them—prepared by Jewish day school students in Toronto to offer messages of hope.
And then we saw the ambulance.
The couple was fragile and elderly. They had traveled many hours and days. It was the JDC that carefully brought them from their home in Ukraine, through a country beset by rocket fire and roadblocks, all the way to the border. They escorted them to the Jewish Agency to continue their journey into Poland. It was then that the husband’s health failed him, and it became clear that they couldn’t possibly board the bus.
The Jewish Agency brought an ambulance all the way from Warsaw—hours away by car. A medical team from Rabin Medical Centre in Israel had been sent to care for him. As they were carefully boarded onto the ambulance together, the wife broke down crying. She knew that they didn’t have the strength on their own to make it out of Ukraine—and they likely wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t made it out.
When their whole world came crashing down, they were cared for with a kindness and diligence we would hope for any of our elderly loved ones here in Toronto, let alone in a warzone. We live in a time of immense debate and data questioning the future of Jewish continuity and commitment. But when that ambulance arrived, it showed that a profound sense of Ahavat Yisrael—love for fellow Jews—is alive and well in 2022.
We’ve seen this in the growing piles of essential goods donated by 250 community members through a supply drive for Ukrainian refugees launched by UJA Genesis. We’ve seen this in the more than 3,000 Toronto Jewish community members who, in a matter of days, have donated nearly $3 million to UJA’s Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund. We are grateful and want to express a heartfelt thank you to all who have given generously to the cause.
UJA has already expedited the flow of $1.5 million of these funds to our partners at the JDC and the Jewish Agency to bolster their efforts, building on our regular Annual Campaign investments in these agencies. Every cent of the remaining emergency dollars will be deployed to these two organizations to meet the evolving needs in the coming weeks and months.
So too, we are committed to supporting the region’s Jews not just in this immediate crisis, but in the longer journey to recovery and a better future. Starting today, we are expanding our Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund to do just that. While continuing to support the vital efforts described above, new donations will also help resettle Jews from the region who have been impacted by the conflict and are seeking to build a new life in Canada. We encourage you to consider contributing here—as more help will be needed to meet this monumental challenge.
Complementing our existing support for Jewish refugees making Aliyah through the Jewish Agency, we are convening our UJA-funded partner agencies to support an anticipated wave of Ukrainian and Russian Jews arriving in Canada. Foremost among these partners is JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) Toronto, which plays an unparalleled role in enabling immigrants and refugees to thrive and integrate into the life of our Jewish community. JIAS has already begun the important task of aiding Ukrainian newcomers with processing and resettlement. Our efforts will support this work and much more. We will leverage our network of Jewish social service agencies to provide a range of services to those arriving—from financial aid and housing, to help securing employment and mental health supports.
Purim and a Moment for Leadership
There’s something poignant about Purim beginning this evening. Tonight, Jews worldwide will read the Scroll of Esther, which recounts the dramatic rescue of our ancestors from a genocidal enemy in ancient Persia. In the celebration that follows, Purim takes us from the edge of annihilation to exhilaration, from powerlessness to empowerment. The experience reminds us that, whatever the odds, radical transformation is possible—and has changed the arc of Jewish history.
Purim also teaches us something vital about leadership. Esther initially refuses to step up and oppose Haman’s genocidal agenda, fearing for her own wellbeing. She changes her mind and becomes the heroine we celebrate on Purim after Mordechai warns that, if she fails to be a leader, deliverance "will come from another quarter…and who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”
When we first take on a significant role or task, few of us can anticipate what it is we are truly preparing for or what purpose awaits us. While no one compares to Esther, it is fair to say that no one knows this truth today better than Volodymyr Zelensky. His willingness to step into the role that history has brought him has inspired so much of the world. And his readiness to wear his Jewish identity as a badge of honour—issuing calls in Hebrew for Jews worldwide to stand with Ukraine—has captivated our community.
We’ve seen this in the 100+ Jewish organizations across Canada, including UJA and our advocacy agent the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), that have issued a unified statement of solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our Ukrainian-Canadian neighbours. We’ve witnessed this in the rallies, also attended by CIJA and UJA, in which Jews and Ukrainian Canadians have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition to this shameful attack on a sovereign state.
We don’t know what we are really made for until moments like these. That’s true not just of individuals, but entire communities. While few could have predicted this crisis, the Jewish people have long prepared for such emergencies. The worldwide Jewish community has built an unparalleled system—one that UJA has invested in for generations—that enables us to deliver life-saving care to one another on a global scale at a moment’s notice.
When the emergency is immense and the situation rapidly changing, there is a need for expertise and abilities that can’t be acquired overnight. At such times, we count on the organizations that were there long before the crisis began and will be there long after it is over.
It is no coincidence that we are partnering today with the same leading agencies that supported Holocaust survivors in Displaced Persons camps in post-war Europe (the JDC), that mobilized Aliyah operations for more than a million Jews from Yemen to Ethiopia to Russia (the Jewish Agency), and that has enabled Jewish immigrants and refugees to join and enrich our Toronto Jewish community for a century (JIAS Toronto).
We are also grateful for the dedicated UJA volunteers, donors, and professionals whom our community can count on to rise to this challenge. Their combined efforts enable UJA to bring together and strategically support all the different elements that define how Jewish Toronto responds to this crisis—from saving lives in Eastern Europe, to resettlement in Israel and Canada, to mobilizing volunteers and solidarity efforts with Ukraine here in Toronto.
Because when Jews are in danger, we must never hesitate to plant our flag and bring the ambulance.
Chag Purim Sameach,