Bearing Witness is a Moral Act

Bearing witness is a moral act.  

While you and I don’t have the power to hault Putin’s military aggression against Ukraine, and while I feel quite powerless as the horrific events in Ukraine unfold, we have the ability and moral responsibility to bear witness to this assault – 

-to bear witness Putin’s use of violence and destruction, fear and propaganda for his aggressive political ends; 

-to bear witness to the courage of the Ukrainian people fighting for their home and their independence; to bear witness to the suffering of the Ukrainian people under attack as they face violent bombardment, flee their homes, hide underground, and as families are separated from each other; 

-to bear witness to our Jewish siblings living in Ukraine, approximately 200,000 Jews who are in crisis; 

-to bear witness to the thousands of Russians who are protesting Putin’s invasion in the streets at great risk to their safety; 

-to bear witness to the brave leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, edifying his people and calling on the West to leverage its power and resources to support Ukraine; 

-and to bear witness to Zelensky’s defiance as a Jew, confronting the lie of Russia’s absurd rationale for this aggression – to de-Nazifying Ukraine. 

Bearing witness is not passive.  In the Torah, the verse of the Shema, Judaism’s central declaration and call to listen, to turn our clear attention to Divine unity, has two letters that are enlarged – the ע in the word שמע/listen and the ד in the word אחד /One.  These two letters spell עד /witness.  It is a sacred obligation to listen, to bear witness, not to look away, and from the act of bearing witness, to respond.

I want to share the recent words of Professor Suzannah Heschel, daughter of the great teacher and leader, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: 

I imagine many of us who are horrified by Putin’s assault on Ukraine today are thinking, as I am, of September 1, 1939, and the horrors of WWII that stretched throughout Europe and North Africa. Ukraine is a map of my family, ancestors who were Hasidic rebbes in those towns and villages whose names I know so well. And they are the cousins I grew up with who still bore those names – Chernobyl (for one branch, the start of the tree), Berdichev (Levi Yitzchak, my grandmother’s ancestor), Mezhbizh (where the Apter Rav, the Ohev Yisroel lived at the end), Ruzhin (where my grandfather grew up), Skver (my cousin the Rebbe today of New Skver!), Uman, Bratslav, Chortkov (my cousin the Chortkover!), Chotin (my cousin Rabbi Jacob Twersky, who married us), Boyan (the Boyaner Rebbe today in Jerusalem), Kopczynitz (my beloved uncle), and many more. I think I know more names of Ukrainian villages than names of American cities. Yet there is the other side of the history, the horrors of 1648 to the murders of WWII. Ukraine is part of our biography, for many of us, and today feels like our horrifying history being repeated. Putin is mad, like Stalin in June 1941, and his will to destruction feels like an eruption from She’ol, an underground hell exploding volcanically. That a bunch of neo-Nazis attacked a bookstore a half hour south of my home, in Providence, intensifies the terror. Yet it was those Hasidic ancestors who taught, as my father always said, never despair, it is a sin to despair, God is always here, always with us. Praying for peace in a time of war seems so absurd, but the world right now is absurd, and I suppose being a Jew in this world is absurd. I hope praying for peace will help us rise above the absurdity and keep alive the great Hasidic traditions nurtured in Ukraine. Our hearts are there and may God bring us peace.

There are many organizations collecting funds to support Ukrainians during this crisis –

In addition, I want to highlight the Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund –  This is an important time to support our fellow Jews in Ukraine.  This fund is in partnership with The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  JDC is on the front lines, delivering urgent, lifesaving food, medicine, and other emergency support — a lifeline to Ukraine’s Jews at this critical time.  It is also in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, providing immediate security grants to ensure that the community is protected from looting and attacks, as well as providing evacuation and relief for refugees.  

Some Additional Educational and Practical Resources on Ukraine:

JIAS Toronto Ukraine Update Page
The Abraham Global Peace Initiative is supporting and partnering with the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow, Poland to provide assistance to Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing from the war
Montreal Gazette – Opinion: Why a Montreal Rabbi Brought his Teenager to the Ukrainian Border
Canada—Ukraine Foundation 
Support for LGBT+ people in Ukraine and surrounding countries
Here is an extensive list of Ukrainian artists and labels to support, compiled by the Klezkanada community

For educators, parents and caregivers:
Jewish Education Portal for Resources on Teaching about Ukraine
Overview and simple slide presentation of Ukrainian Jewry
Strategies for Helping your students cope with a violent world
An Educational Guide on Ukrainian Jewish Life