From hamantashen to art shows, Canadians find creative ways to help Ukraine

Packages collected in Krakow, ready to be delivered to Ukraine (Credit: Facebook, FestivalALT)

Michael Rubenfeld, who was born in Winnipeg but now lives in Krakow, Poland, where he runs a Jewish art gallery, got an urgent message from a colleague in Canada on Feb. 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. The colleague knew a Ukrainian paramedic who was trying to flee the country and asked if Rubenfeld would be able to assist her once she got to Poland,

It took three days for the paramedic, her mother, and her cat to escape Ukraine; once they did, they moved into Rubenfeld’s flat in Krakow. However, that was only the beginning of the story. The paramedic’s husband had remained in Ukraine to fight, so she immediately leapt into action as soon as she arrived in Krakow.

“She started collecting supplies for the resistance to help people fighting in Ukraine. And she asked if she could use our home as a home base to collect and sort the supplies, and then transfer them from my home into Ukraine,” Rubenfeld said. “She was able to put together a series of volunteers. And so, basically, we have people showing up with boxes, and a couple of days later somebody comes and picks them up, puts them into some sort of vehicle and brings them into Ukraine.”

Rubenfeld is also supporting the Ukrainian cause in other ways. He runs a Jewish art and activism NGO called FestivALT that has a gallery space in the former Krakow ghetto. They are preparing to host an exhibition of work from Ukrainian artists and use it as an opportunity to raise money in support of Ukraine.

“To be running a Jewish organization in the ghetto, two doors down from a former Jewish fighters group, and here we are working to support fighters in Ukraine… I think there’s an interesting irony in the narrative,” Rubenfeld said. “The irony of being a Jewish person running a Jewish organization in a country where my people were victims of genocide, now doing what we can to support people in a country right next door to us who are experiencing what is arguably also genocide.”

Rubenfeld said in spite of how terrible the situation in Ukraine is, he is at least somewhat glad to be in a position where he can make a difference.

It’s more difficult for Canadians living here to help the Ukrainian effort in a personal way, but some people have found creative and generous solutions.

Ben Mogil of Toronto and his family rented an Airbnb in Ukraine as a way to quickly transfer funds to families in need. They found owners who had only one or two properties and had ratings from before the war started, in order to avoid large companies and fraudulent accounts.

“We chose two different cities (Kyiv and Odessa) and showed our children on a map where these cities were located so that they were involved in the project. We sent a note, letting the owners know we weren’t planning on staying the booked nights but wanted to support them and let them know we were thinking of them. One of them immediately wrote back thanking us,” Mogil wrote over email. “They wrote back that they were safe and to safeguard our families too.” 

Rachel Lissner, who lives in downtown Toronto, also wanted to find a way to help. Over the last few years, she has run a number of successful community fundraisers. In 2020, when the pandemic first started, she raised thousands of dollars for a local women’s organization by ordering bagels from Montreal.

Last year, for the first Purim in the pandemic, she led a hamantashen-baking operation that raised over $1,500 for local Black women’s organizations.

This year, when she heard the news coming from Ukraine, running another hamantashen fundraiser for Purim was “a no-brainer,” she said. She will be donating the proceeds to two organizations: the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal and an initiative to support Ukrainian media.

The first time Lissner did a hamantashen fundraiser, she had neighbours helping out who had never even heard of Purim before. But, she says, that’s part of the magic of the holiday.     

“You don’t need to be Jewish to like hamantashen, and you don’t need to be Jewish to feel a calling to support people who are fighting or fleeing a war. I really love that this is a Jewish tradition that has turned into a neighbourhood effort,” she said.

“Especially thinking about the story of Purim, it means a lot to be able to support people in a diaspora who are providing aid to their loved ones facing persecution in their homeland.”