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How we can help the refugees in our backyard

Are you going through something tough?

If you find yourself in need of a little perspective, I invite you to meet a few of the Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Israel this week.

Momentum has brought over 100 mothers from Ukraine to Israel to reconnect with their Jewish identities and get to know our shared homeland. As their country explodes and implodes, we found out that at least ten of our alumni have returned to Israel as refugees, carrying only fragments of their families, possessions, and lives.

My team quickly organized Mishloach Manot (Purim gifts) and set out to find them. We brought traditional candy and wine for Purim, and thanks to our daughter Shoshana’s foresight and sensitive eye, baskets of much-needed personal items like toiletries, candles, scissors, markers, notebooks, hairbrushes, yoga mats, and more.

In Beit Shemesh, relief and fear exist together

Our first stop was an absorption center near Beit Shemesh. There, we met with the wife of the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv, Rebbetzin Inna Markovitch, who had arrived with a number of Ukrainian Jewish families.

Their story is harrowing, every checkpoint life or death.

At the border from Ukraine into Poland, the men in the group were told they could not leave, they were needed to fight. There was an exception, however: if you were the father of three or more children under the age of 13, you could stay with your family.

One of the women recalls breathing a sigh of relief. Glancing at her husband, she said, “He is now very happy we had a third.”

However, another mother told me that not only did her husband remain in Ukraine, she also left her parents behind. Her father was too elderly to travel, and her mother refused to leave without him.

She has not heard from them since she left and does not know if they are alive or dead.

Along with her own children, the youngest of whom has Down’s syndrome, Rebbetzin Inna was also responsible for the many unaccompanied children in her community. Some were orphans, others had parents who were alive but estranged.

These children had no passports, only handwritten notes from their parents granting permission for their children to leave – yet, compassionate officials at each checkpoint allowed them all to cross multiple borders and arrive in Israel safely.

In Netanya, an unexpected meeting

In Netanya, we met Valentina Varshavsky, another Momentum alum from Ukraine, where she was staying in a hotel with other refugees.

She told me no one believed there would be a war – and when it happened, no one was prepared. She and her 13-year-old daughter gathered their cat and their papers and ran for their lives, traveling for days before finally getting to the Polish border.

She told me when she crossed over – dirty, tired, and hungry – there were tents. One tent would help you get to Hungary, one to Romania, and so on. Many of the people around her had no strength to decide, and just went wherever they were directed. She watched them stumble forward to a new land, a new language, and a new destiny.

As a Jew, Valentina knew if she could get to the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw, she could make it to Israel, where her older son was serving as a lone soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces – so off they went.

When they finally arrived at the Embassy in Warsaw, Valentina and her daughter were processed and told to wait for a plane assignment. To her surprise, when her last name was called, another woman stood up, too.

The two women spoke, and discovered something miraculous: They were sisters! They shared the same father but had never met. Their story quickly appeared on the front page of the Israeli papers.

Along the way, Valentina and her daughter had slept in cots in train stations and accepted used clothing from volunteers. She told me, “You don’t know the simple and deep pleasure of sleeping in a bed with clean sheets until you have gone through what we experienced.”

I asked her, “With a son serving in the IDF, have you ever thought of making aliyah?”

She responded that she had thought about it – but she had two cars, a good job, a home she loved. Now, it was all gone. She would have to start again with nothing.

With all the love I could muster, I told her that we were all here for her and her family. Now that she was in Israel, she would never have to start again. She was home.

If she wanted, this could be her last stop.

What a mother needs

After our visit, Valentina sent me an email:

“Thank you for coming to visit me. My daughter cried with joy; she is ecstatic about the gifts you brought. I realized that I am surrounded by family. Wishing everyone a peaceful sky above your heads.”

At every stop we made, I asked the mothers what they needed.

They said, “We appreciate the used clothing, but we just want to be normal. We want to go shopping, wear what we want, learn how to open a bank account, and use Israel’s buses and trains. We need to be normal!”

It is our duty as Israelis and as Jewish people to make this happen for them. If you want to help, I encourage you to reach out to me.

For now, let’s return to our lives with gratitude that we are not running for our lives, that we have a roof over our heads, clean water to drink and bathe in, and this incredible family called the Jewish people.

About the Author
Lori Palatnik is the Founding Director of Momentum (formerly JWRP). She is a world-renowned Jewish educator, speaker, writer, and media personality, who has lectured all over the world. Lori has authored four books: Friday Night and Beyond, Gossip, Remember My Soul, and Turn Your Husband Into Your Soul Mate. In 2014, Lori was named one of the ten “Women to Watch” by Jewish Women International in recognition of her contribution to Jewish women throughout the world. Hadassah named Lori one of the “Most Outstanding Jewish American Women of Our Time” and Izzy included Lori in its “Global Jewish 100” list. In 2020, Lori was selected to light the “Diaspora” torch at the national ceremony for Israel’s 72nd Independence Day. Lori lives with her husband in Jerusalem.
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