There is a small Ukrainian grocer on Aurora Avenue North called European Foods. Tucked next to a Chinese restaurant and across from an Ethiopian market, it is easily overlooked. The home of my daughter’s best friend is around the corner. I didn’t know it existed until the other day when I went looking for it. For that matter, until very recently, I hadn’t thought much about Ukraine other than the political circus of a few years ago.
That has all changed. We are witnessing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. As of today, over three and a half million Ukrainians have fled their country, their cities, and their homes.
For perspective, that is roughly the equivalent of emptying the total populations of Idaho and Montana and having them suddenly arrive in Washington with little more than the clothes on their backs. And that doesn’t include the six million people who are now internally displaced – fleeing to the western part of the country, which until recently was relatively safe.
Reflect upon that for a moment. For no justifiable reason, almost 10 million people have been displaced from their homes within the span of a few short weeks. Daily that number continues to rise. Now imagine if you and your family were among those looking for safety.
For many of us there is an echo as we see millions of terrified children, people fleeing, and buildings bombed in Europe. In their faces we see our ancestors from a different time, but the same place. And I wonder how one person can bring so much sorrow and death upon so many with such little concern.
Before Putin began his war, there were about 400,000 Jews in Ukraine – including President Zelensky. Those who didn’t stay to fight have fled. There are many who could not. They are too old or sick to travel. Just this week a survivor of the concentration camps was killed in a missile strike. Some simply refused to be refugees yet again. For these people, they have been left to the capriciousness of fate or the will of God, depending on your disposition.
We have several Ukrainian colleagues at JFS and like the owners of that small Ukrainian grocery store, they are afraid for the safety of their friends and family still in Ukraine. So, while they are processing their own trauma, they also work with retraumatized Holocaust survivors and Ukrainians who JFS has been resettling for years. Like so many of our staff at JFS, I find their ability to continue serving those in need while managing their own stress completely inspirational.
“What can I do?” is a question I often get asked about so many tragedies in our world. I have a few suggestions:
1. Stay present and engaged. Be informed. Don’t tune out and turn away.
2. Get involved. You can make a donation to JFS in honor of our Ukrainian staff and to help us prepare for the Ukrainian refugees we may welcome since the United States recently announced we would accept 100,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war. You may also make an emergency donation to HIAS, our refugee resettlement partner who is working to support Ukrainians in Europe.
3. Reach out. If you know a Holocaust survivor, the child of a survivor, or a person from Ukraine, check in and ask them how they are doing.
4. Small things matter. If you’re able, visit stores like European Foods and buy a warm loaf of bread or a bottle of wine.
To my core I believe no matter how small, every act of kindness, compassion, and service matters. All it takes is making the choice to turn towards and not away. We can never know what small kindness tips the scale towards hope and life for a person, a nation, or the world. And for that reason, what choice do we really have?
Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Chief Executive Officer