Opinion: Why a Montreal rabbi brought his teenager to the Ukrainian border

I pray that this experience will encourage her to help others with a sensitivity and empathy born from her real-life experiences.

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Devastation and inspiration. These conflicting emotions welled up within me as I watched my daughter Aviya, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student at Hebrew Academy in Montreal, walk around the train station in Przemysl, Poland, surrounded by thousands of Ukrainian refugees. She sought out the children among these masses and distributed chocolate bars, Kinder eggs, blankets and a smile to people who were experiencing the worst days of their lives.

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On our visit, we were joined by my Montreal colleagues Rabbis Reuben Poupko and Mark Fishman. Our trip was a response to that familiar feeling of helplessness, as we sat thousands of kilometers away watching human suffering on our televisions and social media feeds. A volunteer mission seemed appropriate: Let’s go to Poland, we said, and pitch in. We left without a concrete plan or itinerary, but with a desire to help and a belief that we would find positive ways to contribute.

So why did I bring my daughter on this trip?

I wanted her to be a witness. As we watch family after family cross the border, we were seeing suffering brought about by violence and cruelty. I want my children to understand that cruel speech and the yearning for power and domination brings about suffering; everything about this horrific situation is entirely avoidable. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ended too many lives and caused too much suffering. War and the effects of violence are not esoteric topics to be discussed in history class; they are happening right now, and my children’s generation must witness so that they can combat its causes in the future.

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I wanted my daughter to know that there is always something productive and proactive to do. We met so many people who had sacrificed their own comfort and well-being to be there for others. At a donation center in Warsaw, we met a father and his two young children. They had just dropped off a brand new sled to be used by a Ukrainian child. The father explained to us that this gesture was his nine-year-old daughter’s idea of ​​him; she saw so many refugee children walking around their city, and she had thought that they might enjoy the sled more than she would. We met a Spanish couple who drove their RV to the border and turned it into a hospitality and nursing station for young mothers and their babies. We met medics and volunteers from Israel who have set up what amounts to a field hospital, and had already responded to many emergencies, including hypothermia and dehydration.

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I wanted my daughter to appreciate the blessings of her life. We met families who had waited outside for 30 hours, standing in the cold air, waiting to walk across the border to Poland. Now, as cold air numbed our faces, how could we — accustomed to Canadian winters — complain about the bitter wind? And as we saw family after family consisting of elders, women and children, we were painfully aware that the men were missing. Instead of leaving her father behind to take up arms and fight, my daughter was able to travel in comfort with her father and share this meaningful experience together. I wanted to remind her that our blessings are abundant.

I wanted to empower her to engage in real life. There is nothing about our social media existence — the natural habitat of the younger generation — that prepares us to look at another human being in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry this is happening to you, I am here with you.” I see that she shares the visuals of her Ukrainian-border experiences of her with her friends of her on Snapchat, but I also see that she is developing a deep understanding for the pain of others. I pray that this experience will encourage her to help others with a sensitivity and empathy born from her real-life experiences.

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And I wanted her to see how one good deed can lead to another. As we communicated our experiences back home to our community in Montreal, we heard back from so many who want to help. Some seek to donate to a worthy cause that we have seen in action on the ground; others want to volunteer their time or expertise to help the refugees. By putting ourselves at that border, we created pathways of charity and giving. As our sages teach, one mitzvah leads to another. I could think of no better lesson a young person might learn as they prepare to make their impact on the world.

The situation is devastating, and the pain of the refugees is overwhelming. Yet, watching my daughter and others hand out chocolates and kindness in an overrun train station in Przemysl, Poland, my prayers for peace are infused with hope.

Adam Scheier is rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount.

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