Josie LaPrad/University of Lynchburg
A group of students from Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in New York City, boarded a flight Sunday from New York to Vienna, each of them carrying festive costumes in their luggage. They plan to don the outfits, a tradition on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Wednesday, to bring some cheer to Ukrainian refugees in Vienna as a part of a weeklong humanitarian aid mission.
The 27 students, led by an administrator and a rabbi from the university, are helping Vienna’s Jewish community support an influx of Jewish Ukrainian refugees by distributing various supplies, helping keep track of donations, running social activities and educational programming for children, and doing other tasks.
Elazar Abrahams, student council president of the men’s campus at Yeshiva, said he and other students were eager to go despite scheduling conflicts. Some of the students will be taking their midterms exams online while in Vienna. Abrahams, who is in his senior year, is foregoing spending his last Purim on campus, where the holiday is a highly anticipated event.
“I was immediately on board to drop tests, work this week, whatever was going on,” he said. “I really just hope to be able to help the refugees directly … We all felt like, yeah, we can donate, but we feel so removed from what’s going on there. Just to be able to live by the values that the university is teaching us the rest of the year, to really be able to go to Vienna to help on the ground—I imagine there won’t be anything else like it.”
Erica Brown, vice provost for values and leadership and director of Yeshiva’s Sacks-Herenstein Center, said the university’s leaders wanted to help refugees with more than “charity and prayer.” Organizing a trip to somewhere safe where students could still work directly with people in need felt like an ideal response.
“This is simply what we do,” she said in an email. “When there is a crisis, the most important response is the human face of compassion. It is relatively easy to help a friend in need. The test of any faith is if its adherents can love and serve those who are vulnerable whom they do not know.”
Many religious colleges and universities have come out in full force to show support for Ukrainians as Russia’s assault on their country continues. Some institutions are drawing on their religious traditions and ties to Ukrainian faith communities to engage students in prayer services and discussions and launch humanitarian relief efforts.
Brown said the group of students in Vienna is larger than originally planned, because 124 students applied to go on the service trip. Some students felt compelled to go based on having “studied Jewish texts from remarkable Jewish scholars,” Brown said, which inspire a sense of activism. Many also have Ukrainian ancestry or feel connected to those suffering through the lens of Jewish history.
“These are families who left their homes and do not know if they will ever go back to those homes,” she said. “We as Jews know this story all too well.”
Students, scholars and leaders at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution in Indiana, are also responding to the war by staying in close contact with Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. The two institutions have a relationship dating back to 2003, born out of an effort by Notre Dame leaders to support Catholic institutions in Eastern Europe, which were persecuted under the Soviet Union. Administrators of the two universities kept in touch, and scholars visited each other’s campuses and worked together on joint programming and conferences during those difficult years.
Since the war on Ukraine began, leaders from the two universities have had weekly virtual meetings. Notre Dame has been publishing regular updates from colleagues at the Ukrainian institution online and sharing their recommendations for providing humanitarian aid and financial support to refugees. The university also brought together students from Notre Dame and Ukrainian Catholic University for a dialogue on Zoom and held a Mass led by Ukrainian Catholics.
The Reverend John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a crisis, but the partnership with Ukrainian Catholic University has offered Notre Dame students and faculty and staff members an “avenue for some sort of action, some sort of help, some sort of mobilization.”
Father Jenkins issued a strong statement in support of Ukraine soon after the initial invasion by Russian troops.
“We at Notre Dame stand in solidarity with all peace-loving people worldwide in demanding an end to this invasion of a sovereign nation,” he wrote on the university’s website. “This unprovoked war is an international abomination and must stop now. Until it does, may God keep safe all of the innocent men, women and children who are currently in harm’s way. The prayers of the Notre Dame family are with them.”
He noted that the “solidarity of prayer” has also been an “important dimension” of the university’s response to the war.
“It brings us closer, I think, and it helps sustain us through these challenging times,” he said.
Prayer vigils for peace in Ukraine have been taking place at faith-based colleges and universities across the country. For example, more than 100 students, faculty and staff members gathered in the chapel at the University of Lynchburg, a mainline Protestant institution in Virginia, for a service earlier this month. Twelve prayers for peace were read from different religions, including prayers from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Native American traditions, followed by a moment of silence.
Student Government Association president Matthew Gillett, who organized the event, said the silence was especially powerful.
“The entire chapel, you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “It was a time for everyone to reflect.”
Gillett hopes the vigil was an opportunity for students to “grieve” for Ukraine and pray for the safety of its citizens but also to “find solace.”
Father Jenkins noted that a historic event like this—a crisis that’s wrested national attention and caused such global outrage—is a first in the lives of many traditional-age college students. He believes the crisis has fomented a unifying moment across his campus and higher education institutions more broadly.
“People are coming together,” he said. “Crises do that, don’t they? In normal times, maybe we just have our narrow set of concerns, but to see a whole nation invaded like this so unjustly, it kind of galvanizes us, and in a way it calls us to solidarity with people. We have to be one with them and their concerns.”
Nicholas Rudnytzky, dean of academic services at Manor College and a Ukrainian American, said, “This is one of those rare instances in history where there’s a clear good guy and bad guy,” a cause people can really rally around. The Pennsylvania college was founded by Ukrainian nuns in 1947.
“I don’t want to give a silver lining to the atrocities going on right now, but it is a virtue that all reasonable minds are condemning this,” Rudnytzky said.
Manor College is known for celebrating its Ukrainian roots and has a Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center and a Board of Trustees committee dedicated to sustaining its relationship with the Ukrainian community. Lawn signs in support of Ukraine and Ukrainian flags now pepper the campus. The college is raising money for the Ukrainian Federation of America by selling T-shirts that read, “Manor College Stands With Ukraine.” A photographer who has art on display in the campus library decided to sell his work for the same cause. A support group for students feeling anxious about or saddened by the crisis meets on Tuesdays at the counseling center on campus. The college is also collecting supplies for the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, including linens, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, medical supplies, baby formula, diapers and socks, which faculty members and students are packing in boxes.
Administrators also plan to bring up to eight Ukrainian refugee students to the campus so they can continue their studies.
Jonathan Peri, president of Manor College, emphasized that faith-based higher education institutions are invested in academic learning but also the “development of individuals’ moral direction,” and these efforts reflect some of the values college leaders want to instill in students, including “service to the community” and “a global vision of humanity living in harmony.”
“The act of helping others brings value to the other and to the self,” he said.
Father Jenkins, of Notre Dame, said teaching students to empathize with people in crisis, especially in a way that leads to action, is central to the mission of colleges and universities like his.
“I think the heart of the whole religious, the faith dimension of a Catholic university—and this is true of Protestants as well as others—is the suffering of others should be our suffering, and we should stand with people who are vulnerable at the moment of crisis,” he said. Supporting Ukrainians in need “goes so profoundly to the core of what we stand for and hope to teach our students.”