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‘Praying that soon we will all be at peace’: Greater Boston’s Jewish community offers support to people of Ukraine

Volunteers with the Jewish Teen Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies assemble care packages containing bandages, dried foods, and other goods at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Half a world away from the war in Ukraine, more than 40 teens volunteered at Wayland’s Temple Shir Tikva on a recent Sunday assembling care packages for people affected by the Russian invasion.

The volunteers put their hearts and prayers into action as they donned masks and worked shoulder to shoulder. Some tucked bandages into boxes. Other volunteers gently scooped dry ingredients for soup into plastic bags.

The teens also penned cards with touching, handwritten messages of hope in English, Ukrainian, and Russian.

“Praying that soon we will all be at peace,” said one message on a card that was handwritten in English.

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As Jews around the world gather at Seder tables to celebrate Passover this weekend, there is a somber connection between that Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the approximately 4.5 million Ukrainians who are fleeing the attack on their freedom in their homeland.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman of Temple Shir Tikva said that since the invasion began in February, people have come forward with offers of help — some with financial assistance, others by volunteering in efforts like the Jewish Teen Initiative, which was organized by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

“There’s been a real desire, I’ve seen, in our Temple Shir Tikva community, to find ways of helping people in Ukraine today,” Burkeman said in an interview. “I’m constantly inspired by our teenagers ... they immediately want to do something about it, to help those in need, those who are suffering.

“They inspire me, as a rabbi, to want to do more,” Burkeman said, “and follow their example.”

While Ukraine’s people are fighting for their freedom against a Russian invasion, Greater Boston’s Jewish community is mounting a widespread response, sending aid packages, food, money, and their prayers to the war-torn country.

Handwritten cards with messages of support written in English, Russian, and Ukrainian were included in the care packages assembled during an aid drive for the Ukrainian community at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Rabbi Marc Baker, president and chief executive of CJP, said the task in Ukraine is made all the more urgent as the region’s Jewish community has worked for decades to rebuild Jewish life, culture, and religious traditions in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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The organization has worked for more than 30 years with the community of Dnipro, a city in southeastern Ukraine that is now under heavy attack. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CJP’s Dnipro Kehillah Project has been an effort to revitalize its Jewish community, according to Baker.

CJP has helped restore essential services such as medicine, special education, and elder care Baker said. It also has helped build a community center, and a facility to provide services to local seniors.

“This is not just about caring for vulnerable people, it’s also about helping people create community, and find meaning and purpose in their lives,” said Baker, who grew up in Lynnfield. “The story of the revitalization of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union is actually extraordinary.”

Following the start of the invasion, it became clear within days that the humanitarian needs were growing and they needed to take action, Baker said.

Baker said that those decades of aid now play a critical role in responding to the humanitarian crisis continuing in Ukraine.

“We feel incredibly proud that what we built over these past three decades has provided a foundation from which we’re able to really support a community there,” Baker said. “To see a Jewish community in Dnipro that is so strong that it is supporting thousands of people from outside the Jewish community, that it has become a hub of resiliency for Ukraine as a whole, is incredibly moving.”

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Volunteers with the Jewish Teen Initiative at Combined Jewish Philanthropies assemble care packages containing bandages, dried foods, and other goods at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Through its Ukraine Emergency Fund, it has raised more than $3.2 million from over 3,300 donors, according to CJP. The organization has been distributing hot food and meals to thousands of people in Dnipro, including shipments of food and water.

The emergency fund was launched in cooperation with groups such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Jewish Federations of North America, CJP said.

Locally, people have stepped forward from within Greater Boston’s Jewish community to assist.

“There is a tremendous desire by people to be able to do something, and they know we are able to get these resources to our partners on the ground,” Baker said.

At Wayland’s Temple Shir Tikva, the teens who gathered to assemble the care packages were working as part of CJP’s Jewish Teen Initiative — a collaboration that also includes Temple Israel of Natick and Waltham-based Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, according to organizers.

Jenna Friedman, Temple Shir Tikva’s director of youth engagement, said it was important for volunteers to throw themselves into the work of aiding the people of Ukraine.

“Because it speaks to us, commands us, on a Jewish and on a human level. When the opportunity to put your feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair into restorative action comes up, you don’t turn that opportunity away,” Friedman said in an e-mail.

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Burkeman, of Temple Shir Tikva, said as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, members began stepping forward to ask how they could help, some with financial assistance, others by volunteering in programs like the teen initiative.

“It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it,” Burkeman said. “We have an obligation to do whatever good we can do ... to help tip the balance towards goodness in the face of evil and suffering.”

At the temple, members will continue speaking about the crisis in Ukraine, and continue volunteer drives to help the people there. They already have begun discussions about how to best help Ukrainian refugees who will arrive in Massachusetts, Burkeman said.

“We have to find faith and action ... we have the faith that, ultimately, the forces of goodness and justice will triumph,” Burkeman said. “And at the same time, we have to act to help those forces, and do whatever it is we can to lobby and issue words of support to the people of Ukraine.”

Dafna Novik (center) puts bandages into a care package along with dried foods and other goods during an aid drive for the Ukrainian community organized by the Jewish Teen Initiative at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.