Carly Kabot

Westchester’s Jewish Community Mobilizes for Ukrainian Refugees

Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression.  Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022. (Mirek Pruchnicki/ flickr)
Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Przemyśl, Poland 27/02/2022. (Mirek Pruchnicki/ flickr)

As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches on Friday, January 27, we are reminded of the desperation we, too, faced as refugees— and the boundless compassion shown by those who chose to stand against intolerance, oppression, and hatred. Today, as the United States welcomes up to 100,000 Ukrainians under the federal program Uniting for Ukraine, we are compelled to do the same.

Though countless governments, leaders, and organizations, big and small, have stepped up since Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified” invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the response from Westchester’s Jewish community is unprecedented. The Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration (WJCI), a non-partisan organization that convenes both the Jewish and interfaith communities to make the United States a place where refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants can live in safety with dignity, is only one of many groups working to make a difference. But their ability to mobilize over 50 synagogues across the region epitomizes how far a little humanity can go.

Approaching the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we ask ourselves what it means to be a neighbor— whether we turn on our friend or welcome a stranger, whether we shut our doors or open our hearts. Some Were Neighbors: Choice, Human Behavior, and the Holocaust is a traveling exhibition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibition explores “the role of ordinary people in the Holocaust and the variety of motives and pressures that influenced individual choices to act…it also looks at individuals who did not give in to the opportunities and temptations to betray their fellow human beings, reminding us that there is an alternative to complicity in evil acts.” The question of what it means to be a neighbor is not meant for the history books— it is the question of our time.

After the outpouring of support from Westchester’s vibrant interfaith community following the arrival of over 1,000 Afghan evacuees to the county, WJCI has harnessed the power of partnership to make change possible. In an era dominated by acting according to what makes us different from one another, WJCI asks us to do the opposite: do because of our shared humanity. Their eagerness to work with anyone and everyone willing to help is creating a culture of care across the community— one built to last beyond any one crisis. Since 2021, after the fall of Kabul, WJCI has been working alongside several supportive organizations including HIAS, UJA Federation of NY, Jewish Federations of North America and the Shapiro Foundation, as well as Westchester Jewish Council, to improve the lives of those who have been forcibly displaced. By giving others the tools they need to act, WJCI supports establishing an effective network of motivated individuals passionate about and ready to respond to the needs of refugees in New York.

Because of these partnerships, the scale and scope of action in Westchester are unmatched. For example, when the war broke out in March 2022, WJCI helped resettle the first Ukrainian family they had heard of with the help of Sinai Free Synagogue and Neighbors for Refugees, a local interfaith group. Soon after, WJCI teamed up with Saint Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Yonkers to bring together new Ukrainian community members, attracting upwards of 200+ Ukrainian arrivals. In addition, over the past year, WJCI has brought together organizations and private donors throughout the county to provide clothing, furniture, career counseling, English language tutoring, college tours, dental care, and much more. This is how neighbors should treat each other, regardless of where they come from or the circumstances that brought them here.

One of the most innovative ways WJCI builds these life-changing partnerships is through acting as official HIAS Welcome Circle Liaisons. Earlier this fall, WJCI received over $150,000 in grants from the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Federations of North America, and The Shapiro Foundation to support its work resettling Ukrainian refugees. Open Arms for Refugees granted more funds toward this initiative. WJCI has opened a matching microgrant application accessible to community members who want to engage in Ukrainian resettlement. Certified Welcome Circles can apply for up to $5,000 to support newly arrived Ukrainians in Westchester, Rockland County, and the Northwest Bronx. For details and an application, interested parties can visit or access it here.

So far, over 20 synagogues, churches, and mosques have gotten involved in the resettlement of families for a minimum commitment of six months. Welcome Circles provide more than critical support to Ukrainian families as they navigate a new country and its systems— they exemplify what it means to be a neighbor.

This move towards community-based action is part of a shift on the national level to support displaced people better as they rebuild their lives in America. This month, the Biden administration launched The Welcome Corps, an initiative similar to Welcome Circles in which “sponsor groups welcome refugee newcomers by securing and preparing initial housing, greeting refugee newcomers at the airport, enrolling children in school, and helping adults to find employment.” Like Welcome Circles, The Welcome Corps provide expert guidance that allows everyone to play their part in creating a safe environment for refugees to become part of their new community.

In giving small groups of volunteers the guidance they need to get involved, WJCI ensures that no member of our community, new or old, is left without a safety net. History has taught us repeatedly that we never know who will need it. It’s time we act like it.

About the Author
Carly Kabot is a senior at Georgetown University studying International Politics and Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs. She is a member of the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration.
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