Learning on the fly, Krakow’s JCC turns into refugee support center

Executive director Jonathan Ornstein isn’t sure what fleeing Ukrainians will need, but is preparing for the worst

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The Krakow JCC’s collection room. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
The Krakow JCC’s collection room. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

KRAKOW, Poland — Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Center, has spent years working to rebuild Jewish life in a city that was an important Jewish center before the Holocaust.

Now he finds himself scrambling to prepare for a possible wave of Ukrainian refugees.

“We don’t have any experience with this,” Ornstein told The Times of Israel on Monday evening in his office at the JCC.

“We’re building a Jewish community center. Suddenly, because you’re involved, you become an expert. But I don’t know – How many refugees? Are they going to come, not come? How big is the need going to be?”

“I guess you really have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

The closest thing the JCC has previously done to opening its doors to refugees is collecting money and food for Afghans being expelled from Belarus into Ukraine last year.

Neither the US-born Ornstein nor JCC members expected a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, but once it began last Thursday, the community sprang into action.

Jonathan Ornstein in his office. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“Very quickly we understood that we need to be involved,” he said. “To help and to prepare ourselves to help Jews and non-Jews that are going to come across the border and need different services we can provide.”

As an official collection point for donations to refugees, the center’s ground floor is piled high with toys, toiletries, and food.

Three young Poles walked in holding garbage bags full of used clothes during the Monday interview, as Ukrainian flags flew in the building’s windows and a sign welcoming refugees in Ukrainian draped over the entryway.

The center is also working with local partners who are more experienced in handling refugees to provide legal and psychological counseling.

Among the many organizations across Poland taking action, the JCC is unique in that it can access the financial resources of American Jewish communities and institutions. An appeal for the JCC’s campaign is currently underway in the US.

“We as a Jewish institution are very much guided by the idea of tikkun olam,” Ornstein said, referring to a Jewish concept meaning “repairing the world.

“So we stand with the oppressed communities in Poland,” Ornstein said.

The 750-member JCC, which hosts a preschool and programs for Holocaust survivors, has been transformed overnight.

“Pretty much the center for the last few days has been focused on doing all we can to directly support Ukrainian refugees,” Ornstein said.

The entryway to Krakow’s JCC with a sign welcoming Ukrainian refugees. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

And it’s still not entirely clear what that support will look like. The center bought 20 mattresses in case it needs to provide refugees with a place to sleep, though that has not yet been necessary.

“Right now there is more capacity than there are people, so we’re not overrun,” said Ornstein, who served as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces before meeting a Polish woman and moving to Krakow.

He said he sees a downside in the lack of pressing demand.

“That means there are people who are trying to get out who are unable to get out,” he said.

With men age 18-60 forbidden to leave Ukraine, many people are choosing to stay rather than leave a father or son behind.

The refugees who have come for supplies or advice hear about the JCC primarily through word of mouth.

Some of the refugees even show up not to ask for anything, but to volunteer at the JCC themselves.

Organizations in Israel have also been reaching out to Ornstein to figure out what is needed, and to offer to fly Russian-speaking professionals, including therapists, to Krakow.

Ornstein praised the national and local governments for their handling of the refugees.

“Poland has been amazing. The turnout in Poland to support Ukraine has been unbelievable,” he said.

“I’ve been here twenty years,” he said. “I’m really positively shocked at how Poland has responded.”

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