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R' Ebbin's mission to Poland

Dear friends,

I am currently participating on a Mission to Poland with the Rabbinical Council of America in support of the Ukrainian Refugees. I want to once again thank the entire shul for sponsoring me to go on the mission. 

-- Rabbi Ebbin


 

Below is my first update. 

It is Tuesday morning and we are on the road for what should be an incredibly busy day. Our ambitious plans include to go to the Polish/Ukrainian border at Medyka, a refuge center in Lublin, and another refuge center in Rzeszow. Somehow in the middle of this schedule, we will be part of a Sefer Torah dedication at the Synagogue in Lublin, presented by the community of the Young Israel of Great Neck in honor of Rabbi Yaakov and Abby Lerner who are part of our delegation. This morning we davened at the Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive WW2 and the spiritual center of Jewish Warsaw today. I have included a picture of our delegation in the shul. We are being escorted today by Rabbi Michael Shudruch, the Chief Rabbi of Poland who originally hails from Patchogue , LI. 

We arrived in Warsaw late Monday afternoon and I was immediately struck by the skyline, filled with very modern looking skyscrapers which complement the rest of the city. They explained to us that this is the “New Poland”, following the fall of communism in 1989.  The country is in the amidst of a renaissance, economically, but also geopolitically as well as in its approach to outsiders. Polish Jews who came back after the war suppressed their Judaism for more than 50 years. These last 30 years, the Jews remaining have come out of “spiritual hiding”.  

It is Impossible not to be struck by the history here. We were given a tour of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial and it’s tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The remains of the fighters were left underground, which means that the streets of the area are actually a cemetery (Don’t ask me what Kohanim should or shouldn’t do). 

We also had a brief tour of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, the creator/organizer of what is called  the Oneyg Shabbos Archives. You may recall that a few years ago we showed a film in the shul “Who will Write Our History?”, about the story behind this archive. 

We also stopped by the offices shared by several Jewish Organizations including Hillel of Warsaw (yes - the executive director, Magda Dorosz, knew our own Rabbi Dave Siegel! - The guy just knows everyone!) The office, like make other Jewish spaces in Poland, now serves as a makeshift drop off daycare center and center for women for the Ukrainian refugees. In addition to toys and activities for children, they provide a psychologist, Polish Language classes as well as daily meals. They are one of many locations like this in Warsaw. By the time we arrived, the office hours were closed, and they were preparing for the arrivals for the next day. One little boy was still present,  I would say he was about 8 years old, and while we were getting our briefing, Rebbitzin Sarah Markowitz of Fairlawn, NJ could be spotted playing soccer with him on the other side of the room.

 


 

Trip to Poland. Post 2

 

It is Wednesday morning and we are on our way to Krakow from a town called Rzeszow. Our bus picked us up in front of the restoration of the main synagogue, which was destroyed in the Holocaust, along with almost the entire population of nearly 12,000 Jewish residents. Rzeszow was also made into a Ghetto by the Nazis. The Jewish population at one point owned 90 percent of the shops in this little town. 

It is impossible not to feel and sense the silent presence of the Jews who once filled these streets. I try to picture the vibrant Jewish life that once was, rather than the incredible suffering and destruction that followed. It isn’t easy to do that. 

Yesterday was an exhausting but exhilarating day. The Yeshiva of Chochmei Lublin which has a fascinating history and the location where Rabbi Meir Shapiro created the very first idea of Daf Yomi, currently serves as a hotel for refugees. I got a chance to spend some time with Anatolia, a precocious 11 year old boy. Anatolia is from Kiev and is here with his mother, his grandmother and his Dog named Torah. I told him I wish I had the idea to name my dog Torah. That way I can always say that ” I love Torah. “ Apparently my sense of humor doesn’t translate well in Ukrainian. 

Anatolia had just finished Zoom school when he met with us. His entire class and teachers are all in different locations, but they all join together to attends their regular classes online. His father is still in Ukraine, and from what I understood from his is tasked with scanning radar. He said he speaks to his father by phone or FaceTime almost every day. 

It’s not exactly how I imagined. Anatolia was wonderful company. He hopes to move from there to Israel, where his sister is currently studying at University. One of the Rabbis gave him a pair of tefillin for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Another gave him a bar mitzvah suit. 

We drove a long way to Medyka, the south Eastern border of Poland. This is one of 6 shared borders with the Ukraine. One can only enter this border by foot, and at the beginning of the war they were seeing 10,000 refugees per day, with lines 12 km long.  Monday they said there was a lot of refugees coming in but today they said it was much fewer. There is much more traffic of refugees leaving to return to the Ukraine. Of the over 3 million that arrived, they report that 1/3 of them have returned home in the last few weeks. 

When we arrived at the border we bumped into “the Mayor” of this little border town of a few thousand. He said that they had no infrastructure set up for anything like this, but he spoke with pride of the residents of his tiny town who have stepped up to help in any way that they can. He spends a lot of time at the border because unfortunately they have had to police human trafficking and other illegalities of people taking advantage of these refugees in desperate situations. He was extremely appreciative of our visit and we left him with our blessings. 

The images at the border are almost like a street festival, but very different. Tent after tent, booth after booth, all set up and facilitated by different organizations to provide services and resources for the refugees. 

By far the biggest presence is Hatzalah and Rescuers without Borders, an Israeli and French organization that had at least 6 tents. They were the first ones to show up when this crisis began, and so the first thing a refugees sees when they enter the Polish Border is the flag of Israel. We spoke to Ayala Smotrich, who is a remarkable force of nature. She has been at the border for several months already and seems to be the director of all the Rescuers without borders tents. We also spoke with Nicholas, who came as a volunteer in early March and was so moved by what he saw that he quit his job and has been there since. He has lead the organization of all the volunteers and resources in the area. He also organizes the daily deliveries of aid into Ukraine. 

Many of us brought bags and bags of medical supplies which we presented to this organization. They said they will use it on their next run across the border. 

I was particularly moved by these two Israeli doctors, who described their rescue excursions across the border, an uncle and nephew. One story with pictures he shared was when they recently went in to save a holocaust survivor who until then hadn’t left. Her house was destroyed and somehow was able to contact this group to help her get out. 

Among the volunteers of Rescuers without Borders present were several doctors and nurses and doctors from NY and Maine. They were not Jewish, but found the organization through the internet. They are there for 2 week stints as volunteers. It is humbling to be in there presence. 

We hand out candy to all the children that we encounter. They look to their parents, who nod approval for them to take the sweets, and a huge smile comes to their faces. It is priceless. 

Before our group leaves the border, we break into the song “Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael”. It is a tribute to the Israeli group. The non-Jewish volunteers tell us how much they appreciated our singing. It must get very lonely over there (we were quite off key).


Trip to Poland 

3rd and final update. 

Wednesday afternoon we went to Krakow. Krakow is unique because the Nazis used the town as their headquarters during the war, and so most of the buildings were preserved, in contrast to the mass destruction throughout the rest of Poland. Many of the synagogues of Krakow remain in tact (with restoration) from as early as the 16th century, including the synagogue of Rabbi Moshe Isserlies, (the Rema) one of the greatest Ashlenazic Rabbis in history. Ironically his Yartzeit was Lag Ba’omer, which would be observed just a few hours later. 

In Krakow we visited the JCC and saw the line of hundreds of Ukrainian refugees waiting for lunch, again almost exclusively women and children. The JCC is one of the Jewish Organizations in Poland who in an instant changed their mission three months ago, and now spends almost all of their time and resources to help the refugees. They serve one meal a day every day and also provide day care, and endless amounts of resources. We engage with the people on line, first giving out candies to the kids but then offering sweets to the adults as well. At first they seem apprehensive but soon become more comfortable with our group and happily receive the junk food. There is something magical about candy that breaks down all barriers. The younger Ukrainians speak and understand English significantly better than their older counterparts. Some of them share with us their stories. Most of them hope to go back home soon. Many of them have elderly parents still in Ukraine, and of course their husbands and fathers. Some of them have gone back and forth across the border a few times already. 

Before they left on the mission, Rabbi Andrew and Sarah Markowitz of Fairlawn, NJ had the amazing idea to have a member of their community who is from Ukraine write messages of encouragement and hope,  translated in Ukrainian. They had kids from their shul color them. When they handed them out to the refugees, it immediately emitted smiles and tears. 

One young woman I spoke to, Julia, asks me in several different ways, “but why are you all here?” When I explain that we are a group of 2 dozen rabbis, representing our congregations who came to show our support for the refugees, she became filled with emotion. When I told her that back home we recite prayers for them every day, she almost seemed in shock.   “It means so much that you came. It means so much that you care about us. It means so much.”  She kept repeating over and over again. 

Another older woman spoke with us with her daughter translating. “I am not Jewish”, she would explain. “But I understand why the Jewish people could relate to our story after what they have been through in the Holocaust.”

For me, Krakow was the most meaningful stop on our mission.  

In the evening we went to a Lag Ba’omer bonfire and BBQ just outside of Warsaw, sponsored by the office of the chief rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Shudruch. There were over 175 participants, with the Jewish community of Warsaw welcoming their brothers and sisters from Ukraine. Rabbi Pinny Dunner of LA broke out a guitar and lead our kumzitz. Somehow the words Oseh Sholom Bimromav mean a great deal more than it did just a few days ago. The singing was beautiful and filled with spirit and we break into dance. 

Everyone was so into the singing and having so much fun. It was almost as if for a few minutes they forgot why they were here. 

We conclude the evening by spending a few minutes in a large house that is the temporary residence of around 50 people and several dogs. One young girl, around 11 or so, Nicole from Dnipro, was encouraged by her parents to play the violin for us. We applaud and cheered as she finished the piece. She shyly bowed. Her parents were beaming, just like any regular normal parents would. It’s nice to try to provide them with some sense of normalcy - even for just a few minutes. 

This morning several of us went to the a Hotel to visit with Rabbi Levitansky and the refugees he is providing for. Rabbi Levitansky and his wife are the Chabad shluchim in Sumi, Ukraine, which is on the Eastern Border of Russia. He described to us his harrowing story of how after a week of constant bombing they packed up their car and drove 32 hours straight to the Moldova border. They were allowed to leave because they have other citizenship, (He’s American and she’s South African). They had pre-arranged with connections to be able to find gas along their route, otherwise they would have never made it. 

Once they cross the border, Rabbi Levitansky shared several stories how random people, all non-Jews, offered any assistance they would need. People holding signs saying, “Free housing”, “free SIM cards”, “free food and clothing”, were lined across the streets. It has been a common theme of people sharing stories of the benevolence and generosity of the people of Poland and other neighboring countries towards the refugees. It is an important reminder that in the end, most people in the world are genuinely good. 

The Chabad shluchim from all over Ukraine send Rabbi Levitansky refugees from their communities who are crossing over the border. Families are staying in hotel rooms and they have kashered the kitchen to provide 3 kosher meals a day. He said their population is fluid. Most people stay a couple of weeks and then go to their next stop, wherever that may be. They are expecting another 50 families to arrive before Friday. They have tallied 1100 total residents since they set up shop in early March. One of the families we spoke too was from Kiev, where his son and daughter attend Jewish day school. The father had recently been given permission to leave Ukraine and was reunited with his family after his 3rd child was born in Warsaw on the first of Nisan. He works in IT for Xerox, but the plant in Ukraine is closed and he hasn't worked since the war started.  

Before leaving to the airport, I spent an hour at the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, the largest Jewish cemetery in the world with over 200,000 known graves. We visited the graves of several chasidic masters, as well as Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the grandfather and the great great grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. As I walked through the cemetery, my friend with me randomly spots a tombstone from 1930. The name on it was Asher Ebbin, spelled in Hebrew/Yiddish the same way our family spells it. 

Apparently I had family who once lived in Warsaw that I never knew about. 

Maybe it’s the exhaustion from the week, but I’m wondering if this was a sign that the purpose of this trip was to visit the family in Poland that I never knew about. 

Thank you for reading these updates. I want to thank the Toby Center, Chief Rabbi Shudruch, and the Rabbinical Council of America for organizing this Chesed mission, as well as our special community from Congregation Ohav Sholom for sending me to represent them. I look forward to sharing my reflections this Shabbat at shul.

Wed, October 5 2022 10 Tishrei 5783