COVID-19 may distance us physically, but sometimes it doesn’t matter which side of the ocean you live on.
In March, I was contracted to work with Yad Ezra on a variety of projects. What started as a focus on social media and marketing quickly changed in the frenzy of the COVID-19 pandemic to a focus on client and volunteer communications and logistics. The feeling that “the world has gone crazy” was felt here. Everyone sensed that things were out of sorts — concerns about health, community, economy, politics. No one was exempted from the sense of uncertainty and anxiety around us.
At Yad Ezra, we responded to the heightened needs of approximately 1,250 client families, the extra stressors put on the staff, and we kept moving forward. We just did what needed to be done, understanding that food is not optional, and that we must do our best to make sure all our clients are cared for.
Now, as the rhythm of that work has evened out, I am glad to be able to turn some of my hours toward the broader communications goals of the organization. Everything is now filtered through a kind of COVID sensitivity, and we are keenly aware that it has affected many lives around the world.
I was privileged to participate in a Zoom call with Yad Ezra and Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, and his colleagues. Schudrich became aware of Yad Ezra’s work thanks to an introduction by Roz Lullove Cooperman, a good friend and colleague of the rabbi and Yad Ezra. Roz produced and directed “Yad Ezra, We Can Learn From You!” a dialogue with the rabbi when he visited the food pantry in July 2018 and became inspired by the organization’s model.
With the guidance of and fundraising by Yad Ezra, the rabbi established a kosher food pantry in Warsaw in early 2019. During the call, he shared their experiences from their first year in operation — it was a Zoom call worth sharing.
As the chief rabbi of Poland, Schudrich is the official interlocutor with both the Polish government and the Catholic Church. Schudrich works to connect American Jewry with their Polish Jewish heritage, establish philanthropic relationships and care for the small Polish Jewish community, spiritually and otherwise.
During the past year, the food pantry in Warsaw has established itself so that, since the spring, it has been making approximately 80 grocery deliveries a month.
Remarkably, those deliveries are split into two groups. One group is to the roughly 40 Jewish families in Warsaw. Each family receives staples, including flour, sugar and grains, as well as additional items such as canned or jarred soup or vegetables, fish and tea biscuits. Without refrigeration and large storage facilities, the food pantry has managed to find ways to deliver supplemental food packages to Jews in need in the Warsaw community, and it delivered Passover food that allowed the Jewish community to celebrate the holiday. The food has been delivered throughout the COVID pandemic using taxis and volunteers.
Most moving was the story the rabbi told of the second group of needy recipients of food from the pantry. There are approximately 40 Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust, who currently reside in the Warsaw area. They are all elderly, and the pantry provides them a monthly food delivery. Remarkably, the connection to the Jewish food pantry as a Jewish organization and cultural connection seems to be almost more important to this community than the connection to a source of food and sustenance.
The Righteous Among the Nations expressed that the food they most like to receive is food that is from Israel and that is directly connected to the symbol of the survival of the Jewish people. Products like Halva and biscuits from Israel are specifically requested by these heroes. The phrase they used with the rabbi is, “We Are Together.”
These righteous people were children who risked their lives guiding Jewish children in and out of ghetto gates, taking food into hiding spaces, removing waste so that the Nazis would not notice additional waste for a family that was hiding Jews, exchanging communications between hidden families and their caregivers and the like.
One such woman, Krystyna Wiśniewska, recently got out of the hospital. The pantry sent her a card and a food delivery, and she replied with a note of thanks and a photograph, displaying the card she received in the picture. The connection is very meaningful to her.
Another of the Righteous, celebrating her 101st birthday, was visited by the rabbi, who delivered a letter from the president of Israel and one from the president of Poland. At her age, wheelchair- bound, she expressed her appreciation and then asked the rabbi how she may be of any help or assistance to him.
These special people who risked their own lives and gave so much are still, by nature, givers and the best of friends to the Jewish people. It is very rewarding to think that a delivery of kosher food, including items from Israel, gives them even a small amount of help and pleasure every month. It seems like a clear responsibility to help take care of these remarkable people.
Yad Ezra couldn’t be prouder of this relationship with the Polish Jewish community and with Rabbi Schudrich. The organization looks forward to an ongoing connection and continuing to explore ways to help the food pantry develop. Perhaps they will reach a larger Jewish community in Eastern Europe or perhaps they may reach the remaining Righteous Among the Nations who survive in other countries in the region. COVID -19 may distance us physically, but sometimes it doesn’t matter which side of the ocean you live on.
To support the Warsaw food pantry, visit yadezra.org/helping-hand-of-warsaw.