Before the war began in Ukraine, Park City resident Jodie Sobel and the United Jewish Federation of Utah began thinking about ways to help those in need. In less than two weeks, and after just a few days of fundraising, Sobel arrived at the airport with 14 gym bags and 700 pounds of supplies.
Sobel, who is chairman of the federation’s board of directors, was accompanied by Alex Shapiro, the federation’s executive director. Together the couple would fly to Poland where they would then take a six-hour bus ride to the Ukrainian border and deliver the donations.
“It’s easy to look at the problem and put it aside. If you’re not living it, it’s easy not to think about it,” Sobel said. “The days spent collecting were a great opportunity for learning and for families to help others in need.”
The United Jewish Federation of Utah is one of the few statewide organizations to be part of the Jewish Federations of North America, founded in November 1999. with the help of more than 150 communities in across the country. The collected contributions are then distributed to other Jewish people around the world.
The organization does not exclusively help members of the faith, although that is the goal, and has already raised $50,000 for Afghan refugees, according to Sobel. When news broke of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sobel said the local federation believed it was important to do something to care for fellow Jews.
Before the war, about 200,000 Jews lived in Ukraine, according to Shapiro. About 40,000 of these people received ongoing care from Jewish agencies. Shapiro estimates that 10,000 of these people are Holocaust survivors.
After speaking with partners, Sobel and Shapiro launched the appeal and asked for monetary donations, over-the-counter medicines, Passover products and other items that could comfort the refugees. They used Temple Har Shalom in Park City as well as other drop off points in Salt Lake City.
The local federation raised nearly $300,000 and raised £700 in donations, mostly in medicine and other goods with help from the small local Jewish community. The entire organization has raised nearly $50 million and expects another $100 million to $150 million will be needed, according to Sobel.
“We realized how caring Utah is. People said, ‘What can I do?’ “, did she say. “People were sitting in Park City asking how they could help others in Ukraine.”
Once the supplies were gathered, Sobel and Shapiro began organizing them in a garage. The items were placed in duffel bags and later taken to the airport in two cars to make sure everything fit. Luckily, the couple received a baggage waiver from the airline, otherwise Sobel estimated they could have spent $200 on each bag.
They left on Monday, April 4, and Sobel said she felt anxious to arrive in Warsaw. In Poland, the couple and representatives of other Jewish organizations boarded a bus with their bags. The gloomy day seemed to match the mood, Sobel recalled, and the overcast weather persisted as they drove through the countryside.
“I felt nervous…we didn’t know what it would be like,” Sobel said. “And we didn’t want to go there empty-handed.”
Hours later, they pulled into a parking lot in Medyka, a small village in southeastern Poland that shares a border with Ukraine. There was a solemn feeling in the air, even though the number of refugees arriving had dwindled weeks before, Shapiro said. Sobel remembers the volunteers dressed in bright vests working diligently, while respecting the space of the refugees. She also saw several volunteers wearing stuffed animals on their lanyards to help comfort children crossing the border.
There were pop-up tents lined up, side by side, with people from different counties and organizations providing resources to people passing through. The scene looked like a dark street fair, the two men said, with offers such as food and water, clothing and medical supplies or SIM cards. As the refugees poured in, Sobel said everyone had someone to help, but the volunteers were careful not to be overwhelming.
“The biggest lesson for me was seeing the tragic toll of being displaced and balancing that with the ongoing goodwill,” Shapiro said. “People stopped and gave up their lives to help.”
Sobel agreed. She said she had seen a humanitarian crisis on the news, but never witnessed it herself – and the difference is shocking. Images of people whose lives have been turned upside down as they try to figure out what to do next juxtaposed with strangers ready to do whatever they can, stuck with Sobel.
“It gave me hope in humanity,” she said.
Sobel met an American woman, who has a son studying at Brigham Young University, who was not affiliated with any particular organization but set up a booth offering feminine hygiene products. There was another group of young men who traveled across Europe to prepare meals for those at the border, in addition to many other agencies who lent a hand.
Medicines collected by the United Jewish Federation of Utah were donated to a refugee medical center and will be distributed to other facilities in need, according to Sobel.
The group also visited the town of Przemyśl, where an abandoned store had been turned into a refugee centre. Here, and in other centers, supplies brought, such as toys, books, notes and letters, were left to help the refugees. Shapiro said he saw rooms full of cots and a school zone created by an Israeli group. There was a lot of worry on the mothers’ faces as they watched their children play, Shapiro recalled.
Most families only stayed one to three nights as they found new countries to emigrate to or contacted families they could stay with. But it was clear, Sobel said, that almost everyone hoped to return to Ukraine.
“They don’t deserve what’s happening to them,” Shapiro said. “Where would you go? Who would you call? They’re scared, and that’s the fear we would all feel. They get care and comfort, but what they don’t have is certainty.
After nearly a day and a shift in the field, Sobel and Shapiro left the border and returned to Utah on Thursday, April 7. Sobel said that although the trip was quick, it was very intense with a lot to process. By visiting the border, the couple hoped to help the community but also wanted to become witnesses to what was happening in Ukraine to educate people in the United States.
“Where you were born makes a difference in your world. If you happen to be born in Haiti, you have a different life. If you were born in Ukraine, look what you would have to go through,” said said Sobel. “It makes me very grateful, but it also makes me think there’s so much need out there.”
Sobel and Shapiro agree that the need for help in Ukraine is not going away and will likely be an ongoing crisis. It’s easy to live in a bubble and forget what’s going on, but everyone in a position to help should help – whether it’s a monetary donation, volunteer time, or appreciation. of a need at the border, Sobel said.