WARSAW, Poland – Jewish leadership should advocate for accepting Ukrainian war refugees, said Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, which on Monday will kick off a war-related mission trip to Poland after raising $27 million to fund humanitarian relief since the Russian invasion of Ukraine two and a half weeks ago.
“The Jewish Federation system is absolutely going to be advocates for ensuring that the countries in which we live are accepting all refugees from Ukraine,” Fingerhut told The Times of Israel at a Warsaw hotel on Sunday evening.
“I do believe that the world has a huge responsibility to step up and to be in a position to welcome all refugees, of all religions and all faiths and all backgrounds,” he added, saying that JFNA had led a mission to Washington last week to lobby lawmakers to help Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.
“We had our top leadership walking Capitol Hill last week, not only supporting humanitarian relief for Ukraine, but also supporting the renewal of the Lautenberg Amendment,” he said, referring to an annually renewed family reunification measure that was enacted in 1990 to resettle Soviet Jews in the US, but has since been expanded to persecuted people of all faiths.
“And we’re absolutely going to be advocating for the full use of all the emergency refugee powers that the [Biden] administration has,” he added. “The United States has obligation, responsibility to be here… The US has to play a very global, leading role.”
Fingerhut, who is a former American congressman and Ohio state legislator, has led the umbrella organization of 146 Jewish Federations since 2019, following a six-year tenure at the helm of Hillel International. Along with JFNA board chair Mark Wilf, he is leading a delegation of Federation heads to Poland.
The mission, which begins on Monday, will meet with the Israeli ambassador to Poland, visit with Ukrainians sheltering in Warsaw and Lublin, and travel to the Polish border with Ukraine to greet incoming refugees.
“[The Federations] are community-based and we’re the central arm in the community to help the response to the crisis. It’s critical that there are people in the community who have seen it and know it and understand it and can speak from personal experience about this,” Fingerhut said.
While the explicit goal is to enable key community leaders to bear firsthand witness, the Federations are expanding targeted fundraising to assist war refugees and humanitarian cases arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24.
The 146 Federations have collectively raised $27 million in emergency funding, as of Sunday. With a network of institutional and community relations, JFNA has already allocated $18 million of the funding to ten Jewish organizations involved in core relief efforts, including the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, United Hatzalah, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Nefesh B’Nefesh, Hillel International, and Chabad.
Emergency efforts are in addition to core annual support that JFNA provides, including about $100 million last year of combined funding to the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, and tens of millions in additional grants for special projects.
The Jewish Agency, in tandem with the Prime Minister’s Office’s Nativ arm, has been instrumental in facilitating the immigration of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and others eligible under Israel’s Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent.
Fingerhut joined an immigration flight that left Warsaw on Wednesday, an “unbelievably emotional experience,” he said, that harked back to prior Jewish Federation efforts to rescue vulnerable Jewry.
“I think when you’re on a flight like that, you feel the history of this,” he said. “We’ve been in this business for a long time. It was the Jewish Federation system that supported the Jewish Agency that brought the remnants of the Holocaust and the Jewish world in Europe to Israel. It was the Jewish Federation system that enabled the Jewish Agency to bring the olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) out of the Soviet Union, and from Ethiopia. And here we are again. You really feel the weight of history when you’re on a trip like that.
“Jews are responsible for each other, and we always have, and always will, play a leading role in making sure that Jews are rescued and brought to safety and cared for,” he added.
Fingerhut declined to opine on Israeli policy toward Ukrainian war refugees who do not have Jewish ties, beyond saying that “Israel is a unique position because Israel’s first and foremost responsibility is to make sure that it receives all the Jewish immigrants, and [the Federations] are doing everything we can to support that.”
Israel’s Interior Ministry has opened its doors to Ukrainians who qualify for citizenship and want to immigrate to Israel through the Jewish Agency, which has deployed emergency field offices in four countries to enable about 6,000 Ukrainians to flee to Israel on immigration visas, according to a Jewish Agency spokeswoman.
However, Israel has placed restrictions on non-Jewish Ukrainians who want to shelter in the country, drawing criticism from the public, lawmakers, and Ukrainian diplomats in Israel.
On Sunday, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked bowed to pressure and eased some restrictions, removing a cap on the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians who can shelter in-country, provided that they have family connections in Israel. Ukrainians without connections will continue to be capped at 5,000 entries since the outbreak of the war. Shaked previously canceled a controversial policy of demanding a NIS 10,000 deposit per refuge-seeker, and is also allowing approximately 20,000 Ukrainians who were in Israel without legal status before the war to remain.