deep dive

‘Someone has to pay for it’: Aid workers and organizers on the burdens and benefits of American Jewish missions to the Ukrainian border

A sometimes chaotic flood of American Jewish mission trips came to the Ukrainian border to witness efforts on the ground, fundraise for aid and, in some cases, to volunteer alongside aid workers.

Sergei Schwartz felt fully qualified to help Ukrainian Jewish refugees in Poland. A cantor at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, N.Y., a Reform congregation on Long Island, Schwartz is a Ukrainian Jew who speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian and has long-standing connections with Ukrainian and Polish Jewish communities.

But in March, when he inquired about volunteering in Poland with a major Jewish organization, he never heard back. So in April, he arranged his own trip. He booked plane tickets and a hotel room, and arranged transport via Uber. His activities were also independently planned: Schwartz performed songs for Ukrainian Jewish refugees in Warsaw, provided them with pastoral care and counseling and spoke about his immigration experience to give them hope while acclimating to a new country.

When he spoke with volunteers at a Jewish refugee aid center there, he understood the challenge that accompanied the stream of requests from American Jews who wanted to help. 

“They were very negative about it,” Schwartz told eJewishPhilanthropy. The volunteers “were afraid that all the missions [would] come, [and] they need to provide guides, they need to provide translators, they need to assign time” to meet with the trips, Schwartz said. “They were already exhausted by all this.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and millions of Ukrainians — including at least 50,000 Jews — fled to neighboring countries, European Jews mobilized to help the wave of refugees. In Polish cities including Warsaw and Krakow, Hillels and Jewish Community Centers worked together with organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to open hotline call centers, organize shelters, provide food and operate daycares for Jewish and non-Jewish families alike.

But Ukrainian refugees weren’t the only group that Polish Jews found themselves having to assist. Soon came a sometimes chaotic flood of American Jewish mission trips to witness efforts on the ground, fundraise for aid efforts and, in some cases, to volunteer alongside aid workers. Mission trips have been criticized by some aid workers and rabbis for taking up resources like housing, transportation and aid workers’ attention that would have otherwise gone to refugees.

For many aid workers, it was challenging to see “whole delegations with no relevant skills, no language, they are a burden on the system, they just stand there and look at people in the train station, they can’t help them with anything!” read a recent survey on the Jewish organizational response in Ukraine by the Jewish global justice network Olam, quoting an interviewee. The report added that “many interviewees found it challenging to witness and manage the involvement of unqualified volunteers.”

American Jews were showing up “via some rabbis in Warsaw…coming via different organizations,” said one Polish Jewish refugee aid volunteer, who requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize Jewish inter-organizational relationships. “There were people who were coming because they contacted someone who contacted someone.” 

Jewish leaders in the U.S. consider the fundraising-focused mission trips to be a resounding success. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) alone has raised roughly $70 million for aid to Ukraine and refugee assistance. Aid workers and federation leaders alike attribute the ability to raise so much money to the chance donors and rabbis have to get a front-row seat to the refugee crisis in Poland. 

“These visits gave Jewish leaders from around the world the insight and direct contact with the work being done here,” Magda Dorosz, director of Hillel Warsaw, told eJP. The trips “enhanced their ability to motivate others to get involved and to be supportive and incredibly generous for this cause.”

Polish Jewish aid workers told eJP it’s true they struggled in the deluge of the first two months of the war to help refugees while hosting American Jews. But trips focused solely on fundraising, they say, were well worth the resources spent as they resulted in additional much-needed financial support. Still, they added, successful fundraising in a refugee crisis always comes at the expense of aid workers’ attention. 

“It’s worth sacrificing the time” for fundraising mission trips, said one Polish Jew who coordinates international aid for Ukrainian refugees, who requested anonymity to speak openly about the trips. But the trips also carry a cost, the aid coordinator added, and “someone has to pay for it.”

Instead, it was individual people seeking to volunteer who were most often the problem, aid workers say. They described well-meaning American Jews who came without knowing Russian or Ukrainian, had little experience with refugee work and relied on the Polish Jewish community to facilitate their volunteering. American volunteers “were expecting us to organize accommodations for them, organize transport for them,” the Polish Jewish volunteer said. “It was really demanding.” 

In one extreme case, the volunteer recalled some American volunteers who were put up in a hotel by aid workers, and then complained that their rooms were too small and asked to be rebooked in larger rooms. During that time, there were barely enough hotel rooms for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

In mid-March, Rabbi Rachel Timoner left Congregation Beth Elohim, her Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, to go on a UJA-Federation of New York mission trip to Poland with a group of 18 other rabbis. Traveling to observe the refugee crisis and fundraise for aid work when back in the U.S., the rabbis also brought duffel bags full of medical and humanitarian aid.

At the time, through social media and in conversations with other rabbis, Timoner had heard criticism of the trips. “I was alert to that issue,” she said. “I think that our particular trip was very well-designed in that we were only there for two nights, so that our use of lodging and food was minimized.”

She feels the trip helped both UJA and her congregation raise money for Ukraine. After she returned, Timoner gave sermons about what she saw in Poland, emailed links to her congregants to donate to aid organizations and spoke at a fundraising event held by a synagogue lay leader. She said congregants told her they donated because of her descriptions of the mission trip, though she didn’t say how much the synagogue raised. 

But if offered a chance to go again, Timoner said she would refuse. “The trip I went on, on balance, gave more than it took,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that I think that all such trips would, and I think we need to be very careful about how we engage in all forms of philanthropy.”

Ukrainian refugees wait in a hall for their train connection after arriving at the main railway station in Krakow on March 7, 2022. (Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A boon and a burden

Well before Russia’s invasion, Polish Jews were used to hosting missions from abroad. As the site of centuries of Jewish history, as well as Nazi concentration camps, Poland has for decades been a regular destination for Jews from around the world.

“This is part of our reality,” said Marta Saracyn, the interim CEO of JCC Warsaw, which is running a daycare program for refugee children. “Having people who fund these programs being interested in [seeing] what they fund, it’s also not news to us, because this is how we operate.”

Saracyn has met with some participants of mission trips since February, and also with individual volunteers who visited on their own. In her experience, American Jewish volunteers are well-intentioned but can sometimes be overzealous.

“They get so excited that they can help and buy toys, and their expectation is that they will be able to deliver toys to the children, which wasn’t necessarily the case,” she said. “They just don’t realize that there are more people like them wanting to help, but then we will end up with kids visiting strangers every day, and this is not what the daycare is. The daycare is running around, singing and playing.”

Saracyn also said that, to her knowledge, mission trips have not taken up local resources that would otherwise have gone to refugees, and have been essential in building support for the JCC’s work.

“We wouldn’t have daycare if it wasn’t for the refugee crisis,” Saracyn said. “Obviously, we are able to offer that because of additional funds. And yes, some people who have been responsible for sending these additional funds have visited.”

On the whole, American Jewish donors “somehow understood the situation way better than many others,” said the international aid coordinator regarding American Jewish support for Polish relief work. “Without the help of American Jews, we wouldn’t be” able to offer as much support to refugees.

Still, even as the fundraising missions came, rejecting American Jewish volunteers became regular practice in the Polish Jewish community after it dealt with an influx of well-meaning but unhelpful visitors.

“This was the dark side, because we are a very small community, we have no resources, and instead of working with the [refugees] who needed help, some of us needed to accompany people to the border and basically lose time,” said the international aid coordinator. American Jewish volunteers “wanted to help, but it was a burden to us.”

In some cases, even knowing Russian or Ukrainian was not enough to make a volunteer helpful, the aid coordinator said. “You will never have time to train anyone [in aid work] when you have a tsunami” of refugees, they said.

Schwartz later returned to Poland with his wife Elena, also a Ukrainian Jewish cantor at Temple Sinai, to continue volunteering. 

“Unless you speak the language, you really don’t understand the pain” refugees carry, Schwartz said. “But people want to share their stories. Once they open up and they talk to you, it brings relief to them.”

And in time, aid workers started trusting him. “The first time I had to convince them, ‘Please take me, I can help you,’” he said. “Now…they’re asking us to find more people because we cannot spend [all our time] there.”

Rabbis on a UJA-Federation of New York trip meet with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw on Sunday, March 13.

Rabbis on a UJA-Federation of New York trip meet with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw on Sunday, March 13.

Dwindling attention

Eric Fingerhut, JFNA’s CEO, said that mission trips were organized to avoid getting in the way of aid work in Poland or taking up resources that would have otherwise gone to refugees. His organization’s trips were usually three days long and coordinated with the JDC and The Jewish Agency for Israel, both longtime JFNA grantees. Federation professionals planned the trips, rather than Polish Jewish community members, to avoid unnecessarily taking up aid workers’ attention, he said. 

“This is not something new that we just jumped to and said, ‘Oh gee, let’s go to Poland and let’s see if we can help,’” Fingerhut said. “This is our core business…I feel gratified that the people who may not have actually understood how the relief agencies work now understand it, are able to describe it, and are motivated to keep up the effort to raise the necessary funds.”

JFNA also sends groups of volunteers to Poland, organized through a volunteer hub that requires participants to be Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking professionals with relevant experience in mental health care and social work. 

“We absolutely do not support people who just go and show up to volunteer,” Fingerhut said, adding that such people “can often get in the way of essential work.”

To avoid overwhelming Polish Jews, JDC worked with a group of American fundraising and travel professionals who helped guide mission trips near the border with Ukraine, JDC CEO Ariel Zwang said in a statement to eJP. 

“We understood that the large influx of refugees and ever-increasing pace of need meant that we could not divert…aid professionals from their responsibilities,” the statement said.

Zwang added that trip meetings with refugees were ethically organized by the JDC. “We ensure that all organized interactions with refugees are highly curated, [and] that refugees provide their full consent and participate only if they want to,” her statement said.

In recent weeks, aid workers say fewer mission trips are visiting Poland and that the flow of Ukrainian refugees has slowed, putting a stopper in most of these issues. Instead, aid workers and American Jewish leaders are concerned with a new problem: But while in the first weeks of the Ukrainian refugee crisis the Polish Jewish community was inundated with attention from American Jews, now that attention is dwindling as needs continue to increase.

“It’s easy when a crisis goes on this long to slow down or to get discouraged, and we can’t afford to do that,” Fingerhut said. “The long-term humanitarian crisis and danger to Jews, not just in Ukraine but in the surrounding countries, is growing, and I fully expect that this next year is going to see a need for very significant relief by the Jewish community.” 

JFNA estimates it will require an additional $30 million in aid for Ukraine, on top of what it has already raised. Meanwhile, aid workers say the needs are shifting from helping refugees cross the Polish-Ukrainian border to supporting them over the long term as they settle into their new homes. Some Jewish aid work is also refocusing on Ukraine itself, as approximately seven million Ukrainians are displaced inside the country.

That longer-term work has gotten less media and community focus, but “it’s super needed,” said the Polish Jewish aid volunteer. “It’s essential for those people to be able to integrate into the society in Poland.”

The international aid coordinator added, “It’s a nightmare at the moment, because there are [refugees] who stay here, and we have to help them to find flats, to find work, to help them with kids at school, and I think many people do not understand that it’s not the end.”

For Schwartz, there’s a fine line when it comes to asking for more help while criticizing mission trips and American Jewish volunteers in Poland. He worries that well-intentioned American Jews will disconnect from contributing to Ukraine aid if they’re made to feel that they did something wrong by trying to help.

“The message is yes, that help is needed. Yes, please come,” he said. But “don’t expect the [aid workers] to provide for you any assistance. If you’re self-sufficient, come and help. If you need any kind of assistance — wire money.”