YU Launches Mission to Aid Ukrainian Refugees Amid Russian Invasion

By: Aaron Shaykevich  |  March 9, 2022

By Aaron Shaykevich, Opinions Editor

In an email sent to undergraduate students on March 9, 2022 to both the Beren and Wilf campuses, Rabbi Joshua Weisberg informed students of a new Ukrainian refugee relief mission. This mission will give YU undergraduate students the opportunity to travel to Vienna, Austria and help refugees in need. 

While the initial email stated that the mission would be from March 13 to 20, 2022, further information was not shared, such as housing and scheduling. A Zoom information session was held at noon on March 9 for interested students. More information was given in this meeting, including obligations, accommodations, and requirements. Students interested will have to apply by 10 PM on March 9th, meaning there is only a one-day window to apply. Accepted volunteers will have until March 10th at 5 PM to secure their spot. Furthermore, if a student is accepted, there is a $500 cost with limited partial scholarships available. 

Led by Dr. Erica Brown, Vice Provost and Director of the Saks-Herenstein Center, and Rabbi Josh Blass, Mashgiach Ruchani, this mission will be hosted by the Office of Student Life and the Sacks-Hernstein Center. The latter was only recently founded in November 2021, in the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks with the goal of “teach[ing] Torah values and applying Jewish wisdom in addressing the challenges of our era.” 

Dr. Erica Brown shared more information with the YU Observer. Brown explained that YU students will assist with helping “refugees fill forms, watch and entertain their children, run errands for those manning this shelter, and sort through the overwhelming number of donations they continue to receive.” Since this mission will overlap with the Purim holiday, students will also “join in the community celebrations for Purim.”

Dr. Brown shared her experience in leading humanitarian missions, including in Cuba, Ethiopia, Moscow, Kiev, and Belarus. In her opinion, Brown expressed that though there may be language barriers, saying, “[Volunteers] show up to let people who are strangers know that they matter, that all the way across a vast ocean, we are united by the bonds of peoplehood and responsibility. But on the deepest level, the greatest transformation is the self. These trips have each changed me, and I hope they will change every student who comes with us.” 

This is not YU’s first attempt at speaking out regarding the current situation in Ukraine. Over the coming weeks, YU will be hosting a “series of panel discussions on Ukraine” from different outlooks. On February 28, 2022, YU hosted a discussion panel featuring history and political science professors. President Berman also gave opening remarks and spoke out against the war Russia is generating. Another panel is being held at 9 PM on March 9, 2022, focusing on “the legal, cyber, and economic fronts in the war.” 

Many students at YU have expressed their gratitude to YU for offering such an opportunity. Amalya Teitlebaum (SSSB ‘24) emphasized how glad she is that “Yeshiva University not only recognizes the importance of educating the students on the current war” but also is “creating opportunities for us to provide assistance to those affected by it.” With similar sentiments, Eliezer Saperstein (SSSB ‘23) told the YU Observer how “it is incredible that YU has created this initiative on such a short notice… seeing how so many of my friends are excited and extremely motivated to be a part of this amazing program to me really shows how YU is in fact looking outside…the Beis Medrash to help the world and those who need it.”

Applicants also shared their excitement with the YU Observer. ​​“This initiative is one of a kind,” states applicant Vered Kaplan (SCW ‘23). “To get the chance to really make an impact on people who need it most. To help bring light into the world. That means the world to me. To be given the chance to make a difference.”

Others have questions regarding the mission, considering how little information was given in the initial email. Elizabeth Kershteyn (SCW ‘22), who recently expressed her concerns for Ukrainians, shared that “I’m proud to see my university taking such a bold and righteous step in aiding those in need. While I’m not sure why Vienna was chosen as a destination as opposed to countries directly bordering Ukraine – Poland, Slovakia, and Moldova – I’m sure we will soon hear of their great deeds abroad.” Dr. Brown addressed this concern when inquired and stated that YU “selected a location that was close enough to receive many refugees but not so close to the Ukrainian border to pose a danger.”

In her statement to the YU Observer, Dr. Brown concluded by sharing YU’s responsibility to get involved in such an initiative. Brown stated that  YU “believe[s] primarily in [the] excellence of character and that means meeting [the] needs of others on their terms.” She emphasized the “call of community” and that Jews “have always answered with hineni (I am here). To paraphrase from the Megillah, maybe we are here, alive at this very moment, to do this very thing. That’s leadership.”

For more information, please contact Rabbi Josh Weisberg at josh.weisberg@yu.edu.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University