Update on Ukraine: Q&A with Rabbi Shai Markowitz

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The following is a brief Q&A session with Rabbi Shai Markowitz; an active member of the Agudah staff. Since the start of the Vaad Hatzalah, Rabbi Markowitz has been in constant communication with communities in Ukraine and across Europe as well as with the offices the Vaad Hatzalah had set up in response to the ongoing crisis. He has been directing the fiscal responsibility efforts to ensure that dollars being spent and distributed are properly reviewed and accounted for. 

By N. Rosen, Media Correspondent

Mr. Rosen: Rabbi Markowitz, thanks for your time today. We’ve been hearing a lot of interest revolving around Vaad Hatzalah’s efforts for the Ukrainian refugee crisis and wanted to pick your brain on several topics.

Rabbi Markowitz: No problem at all, it’s important that there’s full transparency and that people are aware of what’s happening. There’s so much progress being made and we feel that if the tzibbur is better acquainted with the goings and comings of this operation, we can get even more people involved, b’ezras Hashem!

Mr. Rosen: Who is behind the refugee resettlement efforts? Is the Agudah involved?

Rabbi Markowitz: At the start of the war, the Agudah raised $14 Million towards the needs of Ukrainian Jewry. Following Purim the Moeztes Gedolei HaTorah held a meeting where R’ Revuen Wolf proposed that a new entity, the Vaad Hatzalah for Ukrainian Jewry, be founded to streamline hatzalah operations under the management of the Agudah staff who are experienced in organizing efficient responses in record time. Since then, many Agudah staff members have been working overtime to fulfill the mission they undertook. 

Mr. Rosen: Who decides where funds are allocated?

Rabbi Markowitz: The Vaad Hatzalah’s disbursement committee: Reuven Wolf, Menashe Frankel, Bentzion Heitner, Ephraim Reichmann, and Shlomo Noach Mandel. We also receive assistance from successful businessmen and askanim who advise us on many complex matters. They are invested in the efforts, it’s amazing to see that. We also have Roth and Co. on our Audit Committee.

Mr. Rosen: It appears that the Vaad already raised substantial funds. Where did the money end up?

Rabbi Markowitz: The money has been allocated to three main efforts:

  • Assisting people still in Ukraine with rescue efforts and humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine.
  • Aiding refugees who are currently in refugee centers, accounting for food, shelter, and medical needs.
  • Resettling refugees throughout Europe and Israel, including arranging for apartments, clothing, home goods, employment, and schooling. Funds were also allocated towards  helping adults and children learn the local language of their new communities , as well as therapy to process the trauma they’ve experienced.

We are currently resettling 6,000 people in Europe and 4,500 people in Israel. To put that in perspective; even if we put the cost of resettlement per person at just $2,000, when you multiply that by 10,000 (people) it amounts to $20 million. That’s just for resettlement. The real costs are actually closer to $5,000 per person!

Many of us are packing out to our bungalow colonies for the summer – what do our overstuffed cars look like? We’ve got clothes, shoes, linen, toiletries, home goods, even

furniture, and don’t forget the noodle soup and nosh.

Now imagine fleeing from a war zone and to a foreign country! Picture hordes of people allowed to leave with just one oisgebentchter suitcase! They left most of their clothing and material belongings behind. 

Recently, women who fled from one city approached the Rav of their new community in Israel explaining how they hadn’t been able take their sheitels along! For observant women, a head covering is a basic necessity, and even with discounted prices they can be very expensive.

Mr. Rosen: How many people has the Vaad rescued?

Rabbi Markowitz: Together with our partners, we have rescued over 35,000 Jews, and we’re still getting approximately 150 requests a week, on average. The requests are coming in at a slower pace, but the expense remains high. The evacuations we do now are more complex: we’re doing medical transports with ill, elderly, and disabled people.

The long term goal is to continue dealing with hatzalos nefashos situations for people in Ukraine and to establish refugees within Jewish communities so they can continue living independently. We hope that resettlement efforts will no longer be needed by the end of 6 months, even if the war has not ended.

Mr. Rosen: How many Jews were there in Ukraine? We heard of Yidden in Uman, but where did all these other Yidden suddenly emerge from?

Rabbi Markowitz: We are working with rabbanim and askanim in Russia and Ukraine who have been verifying and documenting the authenticity of members within Jewish communities for decades. Based on local organizations and Chabad rabbonim, there were about 250,000 documented halachically accepted Jews in Ukraine before the war started. At this point, they are staying in cities where bombings are less severe, and are hiding out in basements. It’s dangerous for men between the ages of 18 and 60 to be on the streets. It’s hatzalos nefashos mamash, as the survival rate on the front lines isn’t great.

Mr. Rosen: You mentioned that you operate with partners and smaller organizations. Is there a difference between donating towards the Vaad versus other organizations?

Rabbi Markowitz: Yes. Actually, we often work directly with other organizations, though we do not cover their entire budget. This is because we don’t have the financial capability, and because we don’t want this to be a long term Vaad. We want these entities to be able to function on their own once things are stable. For example, we work with Shuvu to help with the kiruv and education of the children. We aren’t aiming to cover their entire budget; they fundraise to cover what we don’t.

The Vaad is a force that works with many organizations on the ground. Baruch Hashem we have been partnering with all types of organizations, regardless of their affiliation: Chabad, Chassidish, Litvish, Sephardic, and at times with secular organizations as well. We have never denied grant requests because of someone’s level of observance — monetary constraints are our only grant limitations.

If there aren’t any organizations in place to deal with a specific need, we take on that role. We set up an organization and supply them with seed money in order for them to get started and be self-sufficient and function on their own.

As I mentioned earlier, the Vaad’s aim is to become obsolete. We’ve always said that we hope to close down even before the end of the war. We need to set up refugees, integrate them within local communities and organizations in whichever cities they find themselves, so they can move on with their lives independently.

Mr. Rosen: CNN put out a report about a Jewish rabbi who saved hundreds of non-Jews with money raised by Jews.

Rabbi Markowitz: I heard about this. I would be greatly surprised to learn that this came from one of the organizations that we work with. With all the oversight and precautions we put in place, there’s a very, very small chance that the money passed through our monitors.

I will double check on that though. I’ll say this, while it is a kiddush Hashem and basic decency to help any person in such a terrible situation, we do have the responsibility to help our own brethren first. Thankfully, the world has been sending much support to Ukraine but our focus must be to help our own and ensure that their needs are met.


Mr. Rosen: The Vaad’s fundraising campaigns have been encouraging people to be “the heroes of today” just as there were heroes b’yomim haheim. Is there indeed a comparison between the rescue efforts during WWII and the current situation?

Rabbi Markowitz: That is a very interesting question. I wasn’t around in 1942, but from the work that I’ve been involved in for the past 4 months, I can say it’s hatzalos nefashos mamash. Besides for the areas that are currently being assaulted, there is grave danger to men between the ages 18 to 60 who are being sent to the front lines where there are r”lmass casualties every day.

Ruchnius is a major factor as well — the Yidden in Ukraine that were associated with a shul and community typically do not enjoy the same connection to yiddishkeit that we do. Keeping them connected in spite of being dislocated and making sure we don’t lose the kiruv work of the past 30 years is hatzolos nefashos of the highest level.

Harav Shmuel Kamenetzky shlit”a has been urging constantly: “If one is able to do something, he is muchyav to do whatever he can.”

Mr. Rosen: Speaking of the awareness campaigns, who is funding them, as well as the miscellaneous expenses such as travel or office overhead?

Rabbi Markowitz: All advertising for the campaign, trips, and office expenses are being independently sponsored, fully! This allows for every dollar donated to go directly to the resettlement efforts.

Mr. Rosen: Any parting words?

Rabbi Markowitz: Yes. First off, thank you for helping me get this out to the public.

Typically, businesses and organizations would need months to put such an effort into place. We’re fortunate to have this ability to get this undertaking off the ground so quickly and efficiently. But it’s not just us; it’s thanks to everyone who supports us. Thank you Klal Yisroel for helping us and supporting the Vaad and for partnering in this vital work.

Progress is being made everyday. But we need more assistance. They need more assistance. Can we fill the void for our helpless brethren?

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