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A Turning Point: Jewish Federation of Cleveland board chair on front lines in Ukraine

J. David Heller traveled to the Ukraine-Poland border to see how resources and donations are helping Ukrainian refugees.

BEACHWOOD, Ohio — It's very common to hear people compare the war in Ukraine to World War II. Poland finds itself once again in the center of the fight, but this time around, it seems to be ground zero for humanity and kindness.

J. David Heller, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, recently traveled to the Poland-Ukraine border to see for himself how the community is stepping in and stepping up to help refugees.

"It turned back time living in the times of World War II, just seeing teams of people streaming across the border," Heller said.

As refugees fled, Heller was standing just over the Ukrainian-Polish border, resources in hand. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland raised over $3 million to help, and Heller wanted to be on the front lines witnessing all of it.

Credit: Jewish Federation of Cleveland
J. David Heller and his wife Rebecca are pictured on the aid trip to Poland.

"It was women and children, and what they were coming across with was one suitcase, maybe a shoulder bag," Heller described. "It was heart-wrenching to see these people fleeing a war, coming to safety, but with a very stoic look on their face, a look of uncertainty. And to witness that was something I'll never forget."

The men in Ukraine have stayed behind to fight with the military. For many, the images are haunting reminders of the Holocaust, but Heller says it's important to see a bigger picture.

"I'm very careful not to draw comparisons to what occurred to the Jewish community in World War II and the Holocaust because I wasn't there," he told 3News. "It's not fair to compare it. All I can tell you is the human suffering that's going on right now. It is a challenge to our generation, and we need to step up and make sure that we learn from mistakes in the past and that we have opportunities to take care of people when they're refugees."

And for those in the Jewish community now fleeing Ukraine, this time, there's a destination for freedom.

"In World War II, you had the Jewish Agency, you had JDC, but you had no Israel," Heller explained. "Now there's an Israel, there's a place for Jewish people that are displaced to go. There's a welcome place for everyone who wants to go, and so it was really heartwarming to see the Israeli government set up an office in Warsaw processing applications for people to move to Israel."

Credit: Jewish Federation of Cleveland

Among the international representation, volunteers from Cleveland were there to help those tirelessly working to rescue people from the incessant bombing.

"You're just working 24/7," Heller said, "and then some of the heroic stories that we heard of people going into Ukraine — paying to get an ambulance and bringing elderly out of Kiev and bringing them to safety — [are] just traumatic. We actually had the opportunity to meet an elderly man and his wife, and they couldn't even speak. They were so traumatized just with displacement, but [it was good] to know they were in safety and to know they had the ability to get medicine, which was sorely needed at the time we were there."

Credit: Jewish Federation of Cleveland

What struck Heller most was the fact that — unlike in decades past — he witnessed people from all backgrounds coming together to help people in a desperate time of need.

"We were there visiting the work of the Jewish community, but the Jewish community wasn't asking people whether they were Jewish," he recalled. "The Jewish community was asking people if they were human and they were taking care of everybody coming across the border, and to me, that was humanity at its best."

More information and a link to donate to Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund can be found here.

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