Fulfilling mitzvot

Finding the joy of Purim for Ukrainian Jews 

This Purim is not like any other. Usually, at this time of the year we would be planning a Purim celebration for Hillel students and young adults and finding creative ways to present the Purim spiel for the larger Jewish community in Poland. 

This year we find ourselves fighting another enemy, another Haman. And the aftermath of his actions. 

Instead of planning a joyous Purim celebration, we are tending and caring for the needs of refugees. In this third week of war, Poland has received 1.9 million refugees from all over Ukraine, which has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Polish society and the Jewish organizations in Poland have come together united in one goal: to help and save as many refugees as possible. 

Our Hillel students and young adults are a big part of these efforts and are providing help on many different levels, from volunteering at the border crossings and providing immediate care to those who cross the border, to delivering hot meals, clothes and other most needed goods, as well as information on possible next steps that refugees can take. The students are also drivers, taking people to different cities and towns across Poland. They are coordinating help in Warsaw through the crisis management team created by Polish Jewish organizations. They are also translators and madrichim for the refugees who are making their way to Krakow and Warsaw.

Hillel Warsaw, together with the Taube Center for Jewish Life and Learning and the Jewish Historical Institute, opened a day center last week for refugees, providing a safe, welcoming and comfortable space to spend time during the day. The space is where refugees can get a hot meal, get help and advice on their legal next steps and be able to find work, as we are supplying computers for them to use. The space is also equipped with a playground area where kids can play, enjoy each other’s company and be kids again. As one of the mothers who comes to the center said: “I see my daughter smiling again, she is a happy child again and she doesn’t have to worry about the horror we have been through.”

Another grandmother told us that she is relieved to see her grandchildren in a safe place, playing and being carefree, not stuck in a basement, shielding their lives from a war for which four and seven-year-old boys cannot understand. 

We are helping the refugees regain their dignity and a sense of normality at the day center. At the same time, we are also helping those who have welcomed refugees into their own homes, including our students and young adults. 

During its first week of operations, Hillel Warsaw, together with its local partners, has helped 63 people, distributed over 80 meals, both for those in the center and refugees hosted by our friends and community members, and helped refugees complete registration documents, search for schools for the children and navigate a new city. We will continue to assess the refugees’ needs and adjust our day center’s operations to meet them. 

How do you celebrate Purim — a holiday of conquering evil — in such circumstances? By doing exactly what the Purim story teaches us: Taking care of one another, to conquer evil and celebrate the victory.

Our tradition obliges us to fulfill these four mitzvot, or obligations, on Purim: to listen to the Purim story, Megillat Esther, which is read out loud in synagogues and community centers; to send gifts, mishloach manot, ensuring that everyone can feel the joy and has means to be happy; to eat a special meal, Seudah Purim, as we are commended to ‘eat, drink and be merry’; and to give to the poor, matanot l’evyonim, so that everyone can have financial means to celebrate as our joy can’t be complete if those less fortunate can’t join. 

This Purim, we have fulfilled all of these mitzvot through our work with Ukrainian refugees, bringing joy in spite of the horrors of the war. Hillel students delivered mishloach manot to 280 Jews, adults and kids, waiting to make aliyah and begin the next chapter of their lives in Israel, far away from the shooting, bomb shelters and fear for their lives. We want to make sure that these refugees are assured we are here to help them, care for them and bring smiles to their faces, despite their dire situation with the symbolic gifts of sweets, toys for the kids, body and soul nourishment for the adults.

The value of all Jews being responsible for one another – Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze La Zeh – seems to gain a completely new meaning in such difficult times. And as Megillat Esther was read this Purim in synagogues throughout Warsaw, in Poland and around the world, we must remember that good always prevails.

Magda Dorosz is the director of Hillel Warsaw.