WARSAW – On his first Shabbat away from the fighting in Ukraine, Rabbi Julia Gris twice led services to welcome the Jewish holy day.
A week earlier, Ukraine’s only female rabbi had fled the war that had scattered her Odessa congregation from Moldova to Romania and Israel. Some stayed put, braving the Russian bombardments.
She first ran an online service for worshipers scattered overseas. Then, she officiated one in person for a small group in Poland, taken in by a Christian couple near Warsaw.
Gray lit Sabbath candles she had brought from Ukraine, while her 19-year-old daughter, Izolda, played guitar and sang, just as she had during services at home in her Reform community , Shirat ha-Yam.
“There was so much story, so much crying and so much pain,” Gray said. “For those who are here, and even more so for those who are still in Ukraine.”
Gray and her daughter found safety after a 30 kilometer (20 mile) walk dragging suitcases and their two cats, reaching the border with Poland where they negotiated a 40 hour wait without food, water or toilets.
The mother and daughter are part of the exodus from Ukraine that has become the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
With some 200,000 Jews in Ukraine, one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, it is inevitable that many Jews will also be among those fleeing.
International Jewish organizations have stepped up to help, working with local Jewish communities in Poland, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere to organize food, shelter, medical care and other assistance.
The reality that so many Jews have joined the mass civilian outflow from Ukraine reveals the deception of Russian claims that it is there to “denazify” Ukraine. In truth, Ukraine has gradually become a pluralistic society, led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Why is a Russian regime that claims to ‘denazify’ Ukraine brutalizing a country led by a democratically elected and proud Jew?” said David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which s traveled to Poland this week to assess the situation. “Why is Moscow adopting 1930s Nazi-like tactics – fake history, fake grievances, blitzkrieg, attacks on civilians and civilian institutions, and murders of children?”
Gris said she always felt very comfortable in Ukraine, a Russian-born Jew who never experienced discrimination.
Today, the Russian invasion has plunged the country into an acute humanitarian crisis affecting Jews and non-Jews alike. Jewish organizations say they are there to help all refugees, regardless of their religion. But for some Jews, the organizations’ involvement is essential in helping them migrate to Israel or stay true to the observances of their faith, such as obtaining kosher food.
Besides the AJC, other people are helping. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a New York-based Jewish relief organization, has so far evacuated thousands of Jews to Moldova and assisted several thousand more after they arrived in Poland and other parts of the country. ‘other countries.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said some of the Jewish refugees planned to go to Israel while others intended to join their families in countries like Germany or Britain. Others, he said, “have to figure out what to do with their lives – do they want to settle in Poland or somewhere else?”
The dark historical irony is not lost on Schudrich. Eight decades ago, Jews were desperately trying to flee German-occupied Poland and other Eastern European countries under Nazi German rule. Six million of them were exterminated.
“The struggles that people had, the separation of families, saying goodbye and never knowing if you would see each other again, and most of the time you didn’t,” Schudrich said. “And to say now that Jews and others are not fleeing Poland but in Poland, and that we, the small Jewish community in Poland, can now welcome them.”
Gray is waiting for a sponsorship letter hoping to go to the UK. She was ordained a rabbi at Leo Baeck College London and has supportive friends and colleagues there.
Wearing a sequined yarmulke and a ribbon pinned to her chest in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, Gray said she had never experienced anti-Semitism in her 22 years of living in Ukraine.
It was the fact that she was Russian that made her nervous after Russian troops attacked Ukraine on February 24. Friends advised him to leave. Ukrainian authorities froze his bank account – a measure taken against Russian and Belarusian citizens. At the border, she said, Ukrainian guards asked, “How do we know you’re not a spy?”
Gray said she could understand this reaction from a nation under attack, but it still hurt because “my heart and soul are with Ukraine.”
Gris, 45, was born in Bryansk, Russia, before the breakup of the Soviet Union. She began her spiritual journey as a teenager at a time of broader revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Judaism, like other religions, had been suppressed by the officially atheistic ideology of the communist era.
In her youth, a rabbi told her that she was so wise that she could even aspire to be a rabbi’s wife. But she thought, “No, I’ll be a rabbi myself.”
Gray doesn’t know where the war will lead but fears that Jewish life will never be the same there again.
On Saturday, her second safe Shabbat, she was joined in Warsaw by a member of her congregation from Odessa – two-thirds of whom have now fled – a reunion that gave them both comfort.
She denounced Russian propaganda and told how her own mother, who is still in Russia, did not believe Russia was attacking Ukraine. “I had to tell him yes, I hear the sirens and the bombs myself!”
Now she feels that her life in Odessa could be lost forever. “I don’t know when I can go back,” Gray said, fighting back tears. “Or if I come back.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.