By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

YU To Send Student Delegation for Ukrainian Relief Mission

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears its third week, Yeshiva University is set to send undergraduate students to Vienna next week to participate in a Ukrainian refugee relief mission. The trip, which will take place from March 13-20, will be led by Vice Provost of Values and Leadership and Sacks-Herenstein Center Director Erica Brown and Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Josh Blass.

Students will leave this coming Sunday evening for Vienna, where they will assist the Jewish community's refugee assistance efforts, helping hundreds of Ukrainian refugees through entertaining children, sorting donations, delivering supplies and completing relevant forms, Brown explained. More than 1.5 million Ukrainians fled to neighboring countries, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, in what he called “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” It was this crisis that motivated YU to lead this initiative.

On Sunday night, March 6, President Ari Berman called Brown to discuss how YU should respond to the “increasingly dire situation across Russia, Ukraine and Europe,” Brown told The Commentator. “When he said we need to encourage student activism, I suggested the trip and he was immediately supportive. We're calling it Operation Torat Chesed, a way to live our values in real time,” a nod to YU’s five Core Torah Values.

From there, Brown worked with Director of Alumni Engagement Aliza Abrams Konig, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Chaim Nissel and Office of Student Life Senior Director Rabbi Josh Weisberg to plan the trip. “Over the next 24 hours,” Brown said, “we worked on this virtually non-stop, figuring out what community/country needs help in addressing refugees, what was safe and also where students could access kosher food and a Jewish infrastructure for Purim.”

Speaking about how he became involved, Rabbi Blass shared that he had previously emailed different administrators to discuss how YU could help in the Ukrainian crisis. After the plan for the mission was formulated, Rabbi Blass was selected to join in leading it.

“In the same way that we wanted others to be concerned about our plight during the Holocaust because of the idea of the brotherhood of man,” he told The Commentator, “then of course we take full part in this. If that’s the case, then how could I not be involved?”

Just after 12 a.m. last night, Rabbi Weisberg emailed students about the opportunity, and this afternoon, a Zoom info session was held for interested students. The deadline for applications is tonight at 10 p.m.  Rabbi Blass shared that the cohort will likely be between 15 and 18 students. Students’ leadership on campus will be taken into consideration.

The cost for students to participate is $500, though limited scholarships will also be available. The trip is financed by a grant from the Sacks-Herenstein Center, the Esther and Richard Joel Service Missions Scholarship Fund and OSL.

YU chose Vienna as its destination since it was close enough to the conflict zone to receive Ukrainian refugees but not close enough to endanger students, Brown explained. Students will eat two meals daily with the refugees, who are staying at two Jewish-owned hotels. 

The trip will extend over Purim, which begins Wednesday night, March 17 through Thursday night, March 18, but Brown sees that as one of the most important parts of the trip. “We will join in the community celebrations for Purim,” she said. On another level, Brown finds the message of the Megillah to be appropriate for this mission. “To paraphrase from the Megillah, maybe we are here, alive at this very moment, to do this very thing,” she shared. “That's leadership.”

Aside from the trip’s overlap with Purim, it will also interfere with some students’ midterms. Brown said that YU is discouraging students who have conflicting midterms from applying, and any participating students must clear their absences with their professors. Acknowledging the communal responsibility to the situation, she said, “First and foremost, our students are students while they are here as undergraduates.”

It’s the busyness of the week that some students find to be the most inspiring part. “We have midterms, YUNMUN, and Purim coming up,” said Yeshiva Student Union President Elazar Abrahams (YC ‘22), who hopes to join the mission. “And yet, so many have applied! It's remarkable to see my peers willing to drop everything to help those in need. This seems like an incredible opportunity to live our values.”

“I’m gratified by both the number and the quality of students who stepped forward,” Rabbi Blass shared. “As of a few minutes ago [at 4:30 p.m.], we had 88 applications from students.”

For students like Yoni Mayer (YC ‘23), an opportunity like this could not have come soon enough. “I've been wanting to do something tangible to aid the Ukrainians, but anything in America felt too distant for me,” he shared. “This would be direct support to the refugees.”

Stern College for Women Student Council President Talia Leitner (SCW ‘22) agreed. “I’ve always been very passionate about helping the Jewish community and advocating on its behalf,” she said. “I am excited about the YU mission to help Ukrainian refugees because it is an incredible way to actualize my passion in a hands-on way.” Leitner, like Mayer, hopes to join the program.

This mission is not the first thing YU has done in response to the situation in Ukraine. Last week, the university held a panel of YU professors who discussed the conflict and its context. Tonight, another panel will be held discussing “the legal, cyber and economic fronts of the war,” according to a promotional email sent to students. Additionally, the Glueck Beit Midrash has been saying Tehillim each day as of two weeks ago, one day after Russia first invaded Ukraine.

For Brown, her past experience with humanitarian missions — including ones to Cuba, Ethiopia, Moscow, Kyiv and Belarus — still impacts her life to this day, and she expects this trip will be no different. “These trips have each changed me, and I hope that they will change every student who comes with us,” she said.

But even for those not attending, Brown shared, “we have an obligation to be informed, to give charity and to do what we  can to rise to the moment.”

Photo Caption: The trip will take place next week.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University