The power of community

A tale of two cities: Lviv and Amsterdam

In Short

We often think of Jewish community as hyper local - but what if your experience of community were both local and global, both geographically proximal and also cross-continental?

In times of war, acts of superhuman triumph and also bleak devastation tear us open and, at times, leave us breathless. The commentary below is a reminder of our shared capacity for good, the significant impact of grassroots initiatives, and the awareness that it could be any of us wandering from Ukraine to the borders in search of home – similarly (in its way) to the Israelites escaping from Egypt in our Passover narrative. 

Community, at its best, operates with the individual and the collective in mind

We often think of Jewish community as hyper local – but what if your experience of community was both local and global, both geographically proximal and also cross-continental? To provide a frame for this story – Hakhel, a partnership between Hazon and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, has 140 communities around the world, five of which are in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, the brave daughters of our friend Olena from the town of Lviv in western Ukraine – ages 19, 9 and almost 5 – arrived at a Hakhel community in Amsterdam. The pilgrimage was both long and short. The connection between these two communities was created at the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference in the United States in 2019. Then, as a byproduct of a recent online Hakhel gathering, Nir Geva from the Amsterdam community of Israelis asked Olena how he could be of help with her daughters, who had to leave Ukraine for their own safety. 

The rituals of our tradition cross borders and generations

Olena and her husband chose to stay and fight for their country and their freedom. They are both enlisted in the army, in different units. He’s a combatant somewhere, and she’s in a support unit and comes home every night – to a home where she is currently living by herself. “Knowing that my daughters found refuge and safety at one of our sister communities in the Hakhel network is a huge relief,” shares Olena. “It enables me and my husband to do what we have to do and keep our community running.” 

Within minutes of their arrival in Amsterdam, the girls felt really comfortable: playing the piano, tapping drums, arranging a dance of children’s songs in Ukrainian and also having a video call with their mother in which they excitedly showed her the house. Children being children, as we so lovingly want them to be. Although only the eldest daughter speaks English, everyone felt as if they understood everything. Among other things they discovered in Amsterdam, the middle girl – Sonia – found a Shofar and began to blow it. Teki’ah, Shevarim, Teru’ah, as a prayer for the girls to meet their parents again soon. 

Since then the girls participated in the community’s Purim party, and this past Monday they had their first day at the international school in Amsterdam, arranged for by the community. Their enrollment will be free of charge through the end of the school year. These are not small miracles. These are miracles that our tradition speaks of – throughout our calendar year, throughout our readings and our commentaries. We are a people who believe in the fertility of springtime when the landscape seems desolate and endless in the dead of winter. 

A return to the past to move into the future

Friends, this right here is one of many stories that illustrate not only what the power of a Jewish community is, but what the power of an international network of communities can be. This herculean effort accompanies many others driven by Hakhel’s communities and partners. “We run weekly shipments of food and medications to cities in Ukraine, a refugee center of IDP’s in Lviv (run by Olena and her community), and a network of over 100 volunteers in Harkov who respond to the most pressing human needs,” shares Aharon Ariel Lavi, Hakhel’s founder and general director. As he is a resident of Moshav Shuva directly by the Gaza border, he says he knows a thing or two about emergency situations. “It is important for us to stand up and provide practical support, such as the eight (and counting) delegations we already sent to work with refugees in Poland, Romania and Moldova.” 

I know for many of us the war in Ukraine tugs at our heartstrings because of our historical roots in the region – whether it be familial ties or the teachings from Hassidic masters who inhabited that area centuries ago – that place may feel like our place. Furthermore, you may see yourself reflected in the story of Olena, her husband, and her girls. It’s essential to remember it’s not actually just a story printed here. It’s someone’s life – the life of a family – and it could be your family as simply as it is Olena’s family going through this trauma of war. For as long as the war goes on, there will be no limit to the kindnesses we will share amongst each other. To learn more about any of Hakhel’s upcoming initiatives which provide hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart partnership to people on the ground in real time, please click here.

Meredith Levick is the director of strategic development for IYUN, a cohort-based Jewish learning experience for adults facilitated by local educators. IYUN and Hakhel are building a partnership to support their shared goal of building content-rich Jewish community. She can be reached at meredith@ooinnovation.org.