After a trip to the Polish-Ukrainian border to view relief efforts, Cleveland Jewish Federation President Erika B. Rudin-Luria and Board Chairman J. David Heller joined others Cleveland Federation leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Israel for a pre-planned mission.
Although the trip to the United Arab Emirates and Israel was planned before the Russian invasion of Ukraine about six weeks ago and was to focus on the Abraham Accords, the Federation adjusted the agenda to include Israel’s efforts to accept Ukrainian refugees.
Twenty Clevelanders participated in the trip as they traveled to the United Arab Emirates for seven days and to Israel for four days, where they met with refugee families at resettlement hotels in Ashdod and at Ben Gurion Airport.
“In fact, I was on a plane to Israel when Russia first invaded Ukraine in late February,” Rudin-Luria told the Cleveland Jewish News.
From the beginning of the crisis, he was able to see the efforts of the Federation’s global partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to mobilize in Israel to respond and assist refugees.
During their trip to Poland with Becky and David Heller, they saw JAFI and JDC relief efforts on the ground to provide rescue and evacuation as well as humanitarian efforts. Returning to Israel, she joined the others to meet more refugees.
“I feel like we got a chance to hear stories at different points along their journey,” Rudin-Luria said. “When we were in Poland, we spent time with people who may have been traveling for a few weeks after running away from home, but were actually waiting. And in Israel we met people who were obviously further away. They made the decision to make aliyah.”
The group met families at a resettlement hotel in Ashdod who had fled their homes in Ukraine to Warsaw and came to Israel to make aliyah. The new olim live in the hotels for 30 days while they decide what to do next.
Many of the refugees who make aliyah are Jewish or have some connection that brought them to Israel.
“In fact, we heard some beautiful stories of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of righteous gentiles, people who are not Jews, but who saved Jews during the Holocaust, who were evacuated from Ukraine and brought to Israel,” Rudin-Luria said.
Another family, a brother and two sisters from Kherson, were not active Jews but had “Jewish” stamped on their passports and knew Israel was the safe place to go, Heller told CJN.
“When they left, they met the Jewish Agency for Israel that brought them to Israel, and now they are in the process of making aliyah,” he said.
Since the Federation established the Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund at the beginning of the war, this trip was an opportunity to see how the funds were being spent to help those in need.
“I came away from the trip feeling great about the donations our community is receiving,” Heller said. “And I couldn’t recommend to anyone else any other organization that might be doing as good a job as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee are doing on the ground.”
Those on the trip had the opportunity to go to the Jewish Agency’s situation room in Jerusalem to meet with representatives from JAFI and the JDC to hear about efforts on the ground, where they said they were receiving dozens of thousands of calls. daily for people who want to make aliyah to Israel, Renee Chelm, former chair of the Federation’s board of directors, told CJN.
Chelm, a resident of Pepper Pike and a member of the Park Synagogue on Pepper Pike and Cleveland Heights, shared stories of meeting families at the hotel in Ashdod and meeting 110 refugees as they stepped off a plane at Ben Gurion Airport. Most of them were women, children and the elderly, and they carried all their belongings in plastic bags. There were also many pets that made the trip from Ukraine to Israel, she said.
At the airport, the refugees wore masks, but the look of shock and trauma they had endured was still visible, and the group did their best to make them feel welcome by smiling with their eyes and offering lollipops to the children. Arriving in Israel, Chelm said there was hope for them in the future, symbolized by the rainbow that appeared that rainy day at the airport.
“It was as moving an experience as powerful as a modern day Exodus,” Chelm said. “It’s like we as Jews can relate a lot to having to flee. We’ve been on the run constantly for our entire existence and this is just one more incident.”
While many Ukrainian refugees have made aliyah to Israel, the help does not stop there, as many only speak their native language and will need help building a new life in Israel.
“We’re going to have to help them, not only learn the language, but also teach them vocational tools that will help them get full-time employment in an economy that’s new to them,” Jeff Wild, who attended the trip as lay leader he told CJN.
Wild, a Beachwood resident and member of the Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood, also met with families at the hotel and at the airport and recalled some powerful moments from his time with the refugees.
After speaking to four families in Ashdod through an interpreter, she said: “one of the men grabbed me, and like I said, they don’t really speak English, he was able to hug me and say in English, ‘thank you.’”
That moment brought tears to his eyes as he saw how aid and relief efforts were helping these families through a difficult time.
“I’m really glad I got the chance,” Wild said. “Sad to have to see it, but grateful for the great work the Federation is doing with our partners at the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee.”