In Poland, Reflecting on Jewish Mutual Responsibility

This Weitzman-JDC Fellow put her Jewish values into action when Ukraine broke out in war.

By Julia Ullman - Rabbinical Student, HUC-JIR | June 15, 2022

While in Poland, Julia Ullman (far left) dedicated herself to refugee aid work and helped lead a Passover Seder at JCC Krakow.

When Ukraine erupted in war, Weitzman-JDC Fellow Julia Ullman didn’t hesitate: She packed her bags and went to Poland, where she threw herself into refugee aid work. While there, she experienced a life-changing Passover Seder, using JDC’s reissued Russian-Hebrew haggadah. In this post, Ullman reflects on her volunteer experience, Passover in Poland, and the value of Jewish mutual responsibility. 

My time as a Weitzman-JDC Fellow at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem has taught me that one of the core values of Judaism is mutual responsibility, that all Jews are connected as one: Klal yisrael.  Through its work in 70 countries around the globe, JDC promotes such values and emphasizes the Jewish imperative behind their service.   

A mere two generations ago, my family was persecuted and killed for being Jewish in Eastern Europe. And this year, over Passover break, I traveled to that part of the world to trace my roots, visit similar communities, and help those in need. Following a school excursion in Lithuania, I continued on to Poland with two of my rabbinical classmates. As April approached, and war broke out in Ukraine, it felt appropriate to focus the trip on service rather than tourism. We let JDC know that we intended to spend time volunteering to support the vast numbers of Ukrainian refugees who have been continually entering Poland in recent months, and that we were willing to support in any way possible – whether through education, Jewish ritual, or simply providing extra pairs of hands.  

Julia (far right) with fellow HUC-JIR students, right before the Passover Seder at JCC Krakow.

Our first stop was the Warsaw train station, where there were thousands of Ukrainian people of all ages. We spent our afternoon volunteering with children and teens, offering coloring books and puzzles. We were stationed right at the entrance to the aid tent, where we watched a thousand people enter in the course of only a few hours, in search of a hot meal and basic provisions for their upcoming journey. Many of the children were apprehensive to leave their parents’ side, but those who did enjoyed their time just being a kid, coloring and playing with each other. Some stayed mere minutes, others for hours, while their families waited for their train departures to other cities. Their drawings were remarkable, depicting loved ones and  homes left behind, Ukrainian flags and hearts. They were overjoyed to receive special treats of juice boxes and ice cream bars, and even some small stuffed animals to accompany them on their journeys. The sheer numbers of Ukrainian people coming through this tent, 24/7, and the massive amounts of resources and food needed, were indeed astounding.  

We continued to Krakow, where, through connections fostered by my involvement in the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship through JDC Entwine, my classmates and I were invited to lead a Seder at the JCC Krakow for Ukrainian refugee families. We were mindful that the themes of Seder were all too relevant to the attendees and expected an emotional experience in need of pastoral sensitivity. Along with Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, we carefully planned our Seder to be simple and traditional, with opportunities for communal participation and involvement. Specifically, we invited participants to add their own plagues to the story in Maggid and messages of gratitude to the Barech section. Also, using  JDC’s reissued Russian-language Haggadah, which were first created 30 years ago for use at communal Seders in the region,  we invited the Ukrainian participants to read many of the sections of the story. It was moving to celebrate the Passover story among people who were truly living their own modern adaptation of it – the Seder helped carry the gathered community through this emotional moment, and the JDC Haggadah ensured a meaningful Passover experience.

At the beginning of the Seder, one participant, 77-year old Yaakov, stood with his tallit wrapped around him, hoping to recite kiddush alongside four generations of his family members. He read from the JDC haggadah and punctuated his prayer with a powerful l’chayim. During the sharing of blessings, he expressed his gratitude to the JCC for taking his family in.  In the backpacks and suitcases that the refugees took with them, small tidbits of their lives and homes remained – a ritual object, a stuffed animal, or basic clothes and toiletries. And I was struck that Yaakov’s tallit was one of very few items he had taken with him when leaving Ukraine, and that he could safely and proudly wear it after so long and difficult a journey. 

Our most significant challenge during out visit was the language barrier. Nevertheless, our translator helped facilitate the Seder and connect us with the Ukrainians. This Seder made the crisis personal and human: Instead of the large numbers of refugees depicted on the news, I met individuals, each with their own personalities, pains, worries, stories.  

This Seder made the crisis personal and human: I met individuals, each with their own personalities, pains, worries, stories.

“For over a century, we’ve put Jewish values into action when the world needs it most,” the JDC website proclaims. By partnering with institutions like JCC Krakow, JDC is helping people in their darkest moments. I had never before seen Klal Yisrael so boldly put into action. The JCC Krakow opens their doors to all in need. Their resources can help hundreds of refugees every day, by employing some and offering various services to others (such as daycare and temporary housing). As I reflect upon my experiences with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw and Krakow, I’m left with gratitude for the numerous organizations and individuals that, like JDC, are working tirelessly on the ground, as well as grateful that I could help even in such a small way the refugees caught in this crisis.  

Julia Ullman recently completed her first year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR as a fellow of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship for Global Jewish Leaders. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and her master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Julia is currently based in Jerusalem, Israel where she continues her rabbinical studies and serves as the interim Community Life Coordinator for the Year-In-Israel program at HUC. 

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories