Rabbi Chester’s Account of Ukrainian Humanitarian Trip

Temple Israel of Alameda--Rabbi Steven Chester at the Poland-Ukraine border.

Rabbi Chester’s Account of Ukrainian Humanitarian Trip

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Steven Chester of Temple Israel of Alameda traveled to Poland with 24 other Reform Rabbis and Cantors recently to offer aid to Ukrainian refugees (“Alameda Rabbi Offers Much Needed Aid to Ukrainians,” April 12). Here is a summary of day 2 and 3 of his trip.

Today was a very long and emotionally exhausting day. We left early in the morning for a two- and one-half-hour drive toward the Ukrainian border.

Our first stop was at Przemysl, which is the closest large city to the Ukrainian border. There we visited the humanitarian center and went inside to see how many supplies had been given to them for the refugees. Even more importantly, we saw refugees who were at the center.

There was sadness in their eyes as many of them seemed confused and almost in shock. The same was true at the next two stops we made, both being at the border. There, too, the reality of the situation hit all of us. How overwhelming it was for all involved! As one woman told us earlier, “One day we were living a happy, normal life, and the next we were refugees.” However, amongst the sadness, there was an amazing positivity.

What Poland has done in taking in the refugees is unbelievable. No questions asked; the Polish government and citizenry have sheltered and continue to shelter every refugee. The number of volunteers from all over the world was amazing! They helped the refugees. They sorted the goods in the warehouses. So many Non-Governmental Organizations from all over the world were at each place. I am proud Israeli and Jewish organizations were very well represented.

So, amongst sadness and sorrow, there was not only compassion but hope and cooperation. We did not cross the border, but we were at the border. We learned that these organizations also join together to not only help the refugees but send food and other supplies into Ukraine itself.

At the end of the day, before returning to the hotel, we had a Seder to which volunteers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were invited. We sang with great spirit and camaraderie and celebrated freedom. It was one of the best Seders I have ever attended.

We returned to the hotel at about 12:30 a.m. The reality and magnitude of the situation hit us all. The television and newspapers can’t fully describe what we saw and felt. The refugees became part of our hearts and souls.

Wednesday was the last day of our mission and we spent it in Krakow, Poland. First, we went to another humanitarian center. It was in a massive unoccupied mall that has been put to use for refugees.

The refugees are let in at 10 a.m. to shop for what they need. They do not pay for anything. What they need the most are underwear and shoes. This gives them dignity as they are not just handed something but choose themselves.

Next, the mayor of Krakow addressed us and told us everything Krakow has done for the refugees. He told us that Krakow’s population is over 700,000 people and there are 100,000 refugees there.

After lunch, we went to the Jewish Community Center’s (JCC) warehouse and sorted our group's bags. Then we returned to the JCC for wrap-up and have dinner. A few takeaways:

The JCC is doing a wonderful job in furthering Jewish life in Krakow.

The JCC, in partnership with many organizations in Krakow, is serving the refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish excellently. They are running a preschool, a woman's group, English and Polish classes, and more. Also, they give out needed goods and psychological help.

The CEO of the center, Jonathan Ornstein, is dynamic and a great leader.

This was one of the most moving things I have ever done. While this war is going on, I encourage you to continue to support the JCC in Krakow. In doing so, you will be helping the refugees in the best way possible as they will be able to buy food, medicine, shoes, and clothing for the refugees.

Almost all the refugees are women, children, or the elderly. They need our help!

Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

Temple Israel is located at 3183 Mecartney Road.

The humanitarian center in Przemysl, a large city right on the border.
Volunteers sort out donated clothes at the humanitarian center in Krakow.
Donated toys that were handed out to Ukrainian refugees.

There are several ways to donate to the Ukrainian humanitarian effort. Visit Unicefusa.org to donate to kids of Ukraine and learn other ways to contribute.