Ukrainian refugees in Lviv waiting to enter Poland
Ukrainian refugees in Lviv waiting to enter Poland REUTERS

On Sunday, teens from NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union, traveled to Romania carrying suitcases filled with teddy bears, games, sports equipment, craft supplies and candy to provide emotional sustenance and activities for hundreds of orphaned Jewish children forced to flee Ukraine when their orphanage came under attack.

The trip is the first of several consecutive, week-long relief missions NCSY teens will make to the Tikva Children’s Home, which houses 300 orphaned, abused or abandoned Jewish children in Neptun, a coastal city on the Black Sea east of Bucharest. The goal of the trip is to provide much-needed play, activities, tutoring and moral support for the children.

“Tikva is in dire need of volunteers who can hit the ground running and engage the children in games, sports, crafts and study,” said Rabbi Ethan Katz, director of NCSY relief missions. “Our goal is to bring some joy into these children’s lives and show them they’re not alone, that there are people who care about them and want to help them. Because of our reputation, experience and self-sufficiency in helping people in crisis situations, they’re excited to have us.”

In addition to activities such as carnival games and craft-making, the teens will lead Hebrew- and Torah-based tutoring sessions and are planning Shabbat dinners filled with singing and dancing. The teens also plan to stay in touch with the children via ongoing communication and sending holiday packages, Rabbi Katz said.

Sunday’s inaugural trip included about 20 high school seniors from Seattle, Wash., along with their NCSY educators. The following week, teens from New York and New Jersey will travel to the orphanage, and the week after that, NCSY teen alumni who recently returned from a gap year in Israel will make the trip.

The teens will bring 300 teddy bears donated by Bears from Bergenfield, a New Jersey nonprofit that collects gently loved stuffed animals and toys for children traumatized by war. To participate in the mission, the teens are paying their own way: $1,800 per person to cover travel and other expenses. In a number of cases, the teens are deferring final exams to take part in the mission.

Rabbi Katz said NCSY youth are equally excited about the opportunity to make a difference in the children’s lives.

“Our teens will be helping kids who have suffered tremendously,” he said. They’re eager to do what they can to lift the children’s spirits, one week at a time.”

As far as language, at least one person in each NCSY group is fluent in Russian; with that, and using Hebrew and English, Rabbi Katz said he has no doubt the NCSY teens will find ways to communicate with the Tikva children.

Since 2005, NCSY has proven its expertise in operating relief missions, leading more than 190 trips – including 45 this year alone – to regions across the United States and Puerto Rico damaged by natural disasters. The trip to Romania marks NCSY’s first-ever relief mission abroad and the first in a community affected by a man-made humanitarian crisis.

The connection between Tikva Children’s Home and the Orthodox Union began months ago when Rabbi Simon Taylor, the Orthodox Union’s national director of community projects and partnerships arranged for kosher food and other supplies to be sent to Tikva, among many other Jewish people and institutions in the region.

Tikva Children’s Home, founded in 1997, was forced to relocate from Odessa in early March due to Russian bombardments. Today, the organization aids about 800 orphans, and the demand for assistance grows daily, according to Tikva officials.

Said Rabbi Katz, “To be able to do tikkun olam (repairing the world) in a hands-on manner gives teens a tremendous sense of Jewish pride. Many have described NCSY relief missions as their most impactful and meaningful Jewish experience of their lives so far.”