In the spring of 2022, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) asked for Russian and Ukrainian speaking clergy to travel to Poland, Hungary and Moldova to support the Jews fleeing war in Ukraine, to help them celebrate Passover, and lift their spirits.
Rabbi Michael Farbman did not hesitate to answer the call.
In April 2022, when the Rabbi returned from spending a week in Poland as a volunteer, he wrote to congregants: “I have spent a week on the ground, visiting multiple refugee centers, running programs for adults, playing with kids, sharing simple meals, and listening to stories. I have also tried, as much as I could, to offer some support to the volunteers and professionals on the ground, helping to run the response to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”
Armed with a credit card and the generosity of his congregants, Rabbi Farbman also provided the Ukrainians with everything from clothing to medications to snacks and treats, board games and toys — some of which were bought there and much of which was collected by congregants prior to his departure.
Four months later, in August 2022, Rabbi Farbman had just returned from a trip to Israel, when he learned that there were many Ukrainian refugees who had found their way to Spain, and that the local Jewish community — most notably Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Barcelona — was organizing programs for them, with the support of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Ukraine Crisis Fund. Dedicated volunteers and coordinators were working very hard to create special summer experiences for these children displaced by war, and they really needed help.
The Rabbi was off again. Accompanied by his son, Samuel Farbman, the two boarded a flight to Barcelona, where they spent, again with the help of Temple Emanuel members and friends.
“The 9th of Av fell right in the middle of our trip,” the Rabbi wrote to TE congregants. – we were so grateful for this opportunity to do something meaningful, helping to heal the world, and our people.”
“We helped with shopping, sang songs with kids, and met with a few families. I gave a talk about the upcoming 9th of Av and led Shabbat services (in Russian, simultaneously translated into Spanish by an amazing local coordinator, with readings in Spanish, Catalan, Russian and of course Hebrew).” At the same time, Sam helped set up the computers they had brought, cooked pizza with the kids, and answered their myriad of questions, especially about education in America.
A Report from Rabbi Farbman and Olga Markus
This spring, Rabbi Farbman made his third trip abroad to help Ukrainian refugees — his second to Spain. This time he was accompanied by his wife, Olga Markus, who was making her first such trip. Markus is Program Director of Community & Jewish Life at The Jewish Federations of North America and the Temple Emanuel Religious School Director. Markus has been coordinating the volunteer work all over Europe on behalf of JFNA from the very beginning, so while this was her first trip in person, she has been (and continues to be) involved in this sacred work pretty much every day for over a year now.
The couple chronicled their recent trip to help Ukrainian refugees in Spain in the following report to congregants:
It’s been over a year since the war in Ukraine broke out and [Rabbi Farbman] boarded a flight to Poland as an official volunteer with JDC; and then to Spain to support Ukrainian refugees in Europe as part of the JFNA’s Global Volunteer Hub Initiative.
A year is a long time. In Poland in April 2022 People were utterly disoriented by the physical and emotional ordeal they have just survived. The war was devastating. The people were hurting and shaken. There was shock, disbelief, and a hope that the war would soon be over and that Ukrainians would return to their homes.
In Barcelona in August 2022, the immediate pain and shock felt more distant, and people were facing the reality that their lives were not going to be the same again, and they had to make some difficult choices and long-term decisions for their families. They needed help, reassurance, and support as they were trying to figure out their next steps. They needed someone to watch over their children as they navigated bureaucracies and sought work. They needed to hear from those who had already gone through the immigrant experience to tell them that they would be okay.
In April 2023, the reality is different once again. People are learning Spanish and are beginning to have basic daily interactions in supermarkets and corner stores with more confidence. Kids are settling into school. Their parents have moved on from temporary Red Cross housing into rented accommodations. Many have secured employment and have found ways to keep in touch with friends made during these difficult days.
As the basic needs of their lives begin to slowly fall into place, their need for community, support and camaraderie becomes more focused – the early childhood center, the women’s club, the Spanish lessons, the hiking group, the teen art project — all continue to be life savers. There is an odd yet comforting sense of a ‘new normal’, when the same person who invites us to visit her in her new home in Spain simultaneously invites us to visit her in her beloved Odessa in the Ukraine (someday soon, we all hope!).
This year we arrived in Spain in the middle of the holiday of Passover. We brought with us iPads for the preschool program, matzo ball mix and chocolate covered matzah (a huge hit!), Passover snacks and a PJ library book in Ukrainian.
We shopped and cooked and hosted a Passover Seder, we taught and shared; played with kids and read stories with adults, We took people on walks and trips and picnics. Together, we sang and prayed and laughed and hugged and cried. We talked about the pain that people carry, and about freedom and hopes for the future. And we listened — the importance of speaking the same language is key and cannot be overstated! We gave a lot. Of course, it was not enough – it can never be enough.
As we return home we try to process our experiences and take into account what we are bringing home. And what we are bringing home are names and faces…a sense of devastation and a sense of hope…lessons of resilience and optimism.
Most of all we, are returning filled with gratitude to our Temple Emanuel for recognizing this urge we have to play a small role in making this world a little friendlier for people whose lives have been turned upside down. We couldn’t have done any of this without their love and support.