- - Thursday, March 10, 2022

When the invasion of Ukraine began, we all got to work. As head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (the Fellowship), I have organized and led humanitarian aid distributions during war before. We have a proven protocol. My mantra as the calls began pouring in was simple: We are prepared for this. We know what to do. We are here to save lives and we will succeed.

Before the first day of war ended, we were already in our all too familiar “emergency mode.” Our team opened up communication channels with partners and staff in the war zone, along with leaders of fellow global humanitarian organizations mobilizing to help. We were receiving a report from the field every few hours. We were keeping up with the rising needs, delivering food to Jewish community centers where hundreds of community members found shelter, providing medicine to elderly who were running low, and evacuating those who were in distress. 

Everything was under control. Until it wasn’t. 

It was day three of the war when things started to change. A three-day closure in Kyiv. No supermarkets open, no medicine available, no one able to step outside of their house without likely getting shot.

Immediately, my mind went to Svetlana, an elderly Holocaust survivor I met in Kyiv when I was in the field delivering aid just a week before the war began. She broke her hip, was bedridden and relied on outside aid to deliver food. What will happen to her during the closure? What will happen to the tens of thousands of elderly throughout Ukraine who won’t have food or medicine if organizations can’t bring it to their bedside? 

That day, my prayers were extra heartfelt. As I pushed through a 20-hour workday barely eating or drinking, I thought about Svetlana in Kyiv. My mind was on the hundreds of orphans in eastern Ukraine who I have visited many times in the past few years. 

I prayed for one of our Fellowship staff members in Kharkov who was hiding in the underground metro with thousands of others for over three days, with bombs landing overhead. And I cried for another Fellowship staff member in Kyiv who sent her soldier husband to war, only to find out a few hours later — painfully alone with bombs all around — that she was pregnant.

At the Fellowship, we are experts in strategic planning. We have emergency contingency plans with details of how to continue our operations during war. They have always worked in the past. We have placed over 20 bomb shelters during rocket attacks in southern Israel. We have distributed hundreds of bulletproof vests to Israeli border towns under fire. And in 2014 when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, the Fellowship was on the ground, participating in evacuation efforts and distribution of humanitarian relief. I thought we had seen it all. But I was wrong. Heart-wrenchingly wrong.

In the past two days, all humanitarian organizations operating in Ukraine have had to ditch the contingency plans and dive into the deep water of spontaneity and dealing with needs as they arise. We have opened up emergency hotlines and answered thousands of frantic calls. Some people beg for water, others cry for food, many plead for evacuation, all of them are desperate. The humanitarian services are their final hope as government and emergency services have collapsed overnight. 

In less than a week, we have transitioned from “Ukraine emergency plans” to assessing each city on its own. In Kharkov they need evacuation. In Kyiv they need food. In Odesa they need medicine. 

No operation is simple. We had an orphanage of more than 100 children switch buses 15 times until they arrived to safety. We had food delivery to a sick elderly person take over five hours to travel less than two miles. We had a pregnant woman travel for days in order to cross the border, with bombs literally landing all around her car. She collapsed from exhaustion, and in inconsolable tears, when she was finally out of Ukraine she said, “My house might be destroyed, but I’m alive.”

It’s day seven of the war as I write this from Jerusalem, and truthfully the past week has been a blur. I am not the only one who can count the hours of sleep I have gotten this past week on my fingers. I’m broken for the refugees, broken for those still behind in Ukraine, and broken for the world.

But I’m also inspired. 

I am inspired by the unified beating heart of the world praying for our brethren in Ukraine. I’m inspired by the aid workers in the field dodging bullets and bombs in order to save others. And I’m inspired by my heroic colleagues. 

Together, Jewish organizations have rallied as one to meet the enormous needs of Ukraine’s 200,000 strong Jewish community, as well as the needs of non-Jews. There is no more focus — or even talk — on individual brands or logos. The petty organizational ego is dead. Together, we are now simply focused on saving precious lives.  

It took a war to draw the world together. I pray that peace will come and tie the knot.

• Yael Eckstein is the president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (the Fellowship). 

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