PORT ST. LUCIE— Lev Kleiman received a phone call in the middle of the night. A group of people fleeing Ukraine, trying to reach the Romanian border, had been abandoned by their bus driver 40 miles from their destination.
Kleiman immediately sprang into action, rescuing the group and bringing them back to a synagogue-turned-refugee center in Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine.
It was just a story that Kleiman, director of relief efforts at Kehillat Aviv Synagogue, shared during a Zoom call to about 50 residents — dressed in vibrant blue and gold attire — in the Valencia Cay neighborhood of Tradition during a vigil of support for Ukraine on Monday.
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“It just touches us that such atrocities can continue like this in such modern times,” said Dwayne Smith, who has lived on Valencia Cay for a year. “I just wanted to feel like in a micro way, I’m playing a role in making things better, representing the good rather than the bad.
It has been around 60 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, attacking and bombing major cities such as kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country as Russian forces continue to attack, with the majority fleeing to neighboring countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova.
Seeing the devastation unfold and seeing thousands of Ukrainians driven from their homeland is why Michael Meyerstein, a retired rabbi, organized the vigil, he said.
“Has the world learned nothing from this catastrophic war of 75 years ago? said Meyerstein, whose three grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.
David Golinkin, Meyerstein’s former colleague and president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, helped translate as Kleiman spoke about what it was like at the refugee center in Ukraine.
“The congregation rented six apartments where they relocated refugees, in addition to which they rented hotel rooms so they could provide a roof over their heads,” Meyerstein said.
The synagogue has helped more than 1,000 refugees so far, also offering free transport to the Romanian border and air tickets from Romania to Budapest, Berlin and Israel.
The Schechter Institute spends about $20,000 a week to help the refugee center, according to event organizers.
The vigil also featured Chris Ely, who teaches Russian history classes at Florida Atlantic University and spoke about the long-standing relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
“Despite all the carnage, and despite the fact that we need this war to end yesterday, we can conclude – at least on a silver lining – that Ukraine has definitely discovered its identity as an independent nation, and I don’t I don’t think that’s something that Putin or any other Russian leader can ever take away,” Ely said.
Residents were encouraged to write a message of support which will be projected on the Warsaw spire building in Poland and seen by refugees.
It ended with a solidarity march for peace in Valencia Cay.
The vigil struck home for resident Jan Johnston, who has Ukrainian roots and whose family immigrated to Michigan and Canada.
“On both sides, my family is Ukrainian, and that’s our nationality. I grew up with all Ukrainian traditions,” she said.
Andrea Kane also has Ukrainian heritage and was proud to be part of the vigil on Monday.
“They passed by Ellis Island in 1914,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think we’re all here to show our support for Ukraine and we want to see this conflict end.”
Donations to help provide Ukrainian refugees with food, transportation, housing, and other support can be made at schechter.edu/donate-ukraine-campaign. Residents can also write messages to refugees at preply.com/en/blog/messages-to-Ukraine.
Olivia McKelvey is TCPalm’s watchdog reporter for St. Lucie County. You can reach her at [email protected], 772-521-4380 and on Twitter @olivia_mckelvey.