Dr. Moshe Loewenthal is the pastor of Beit Avi congregation in the city of Karmiel in northern Israel and he is also the director of the non-profit One Middle East Agency, or OMEA, established in 2019. Before war broke out in Ukraine, the non-profit focused on discipleship and Bible studies, and also on Jewish-Arab partnership helping and supporting new immigrants in Israel, with a focus on the city of Karmiel.
But then Russia invaded Ukraine and everything changed.
“I think it was the second day of the war,” Loewenthal told KNI. “I was in the living room with my wife, and the news was about Ukraine. She said that during the holocaust there was no television showing what was happening, and years later people gave the excuse that they didn’t know. But now we can see what is happening and what are we doing? And suddenly she turned to me and asked ‘and what are YOU doing?’ in a very Jewish-mama guilt way.”
Loewenthal started thinking about what he really could do and tried to call some Christian churches on the Polish border. After failing to establish contact, he turned to someone he knew in Hungary who told him to come. So the OMEA delegation of six people went to Hungary.
“In the beginning, we had no idea what to expect, so we just arrived there. We stayed in Budapest first just to learn about the situation and then went to Beregsurány, which is close to the border. First, we arrived at a care center where they brought the refugees. We noticed that the biggest need is for translators, because the Hungarians don’t understand Ukrainian. By God’s grace, two of our staff spoke the language, so we stayed there for ten days helping out.”
After these initial ten days, the local Hungarian authorities managed the situation better and had their own translators, so Loewenthal went back to Israel with a more clear view of the existing needs. He raised more funds and engaged Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking volunteers to come with him back to Hungary. This time they went to the city of Záhony, which is right next to the border of Ukraine and Slovakia. The city on the Ukrainian side of the border there is called Chop, and there are regular train services between the cities on which many refugees arrive, crossing the river Tisza, which marks the border between the countries in this area.
“The police do the passport checks on the train, and anyone whose passports are in order is free to go, but many don’t have it. When they suddenly had to flee, not everyone had arranged valid passports. Many have expired passports, and many children have no documentation at all.”
These people, without valid travel documents, were of course not turned back, but the Hungarian police had to take them to a separate station for additional questioning and to arrange for travel documents that would be valid in Hungary and throughout Europe. But the language is still a barrier there.
“It is scary when a police with a gun comes and tells you to come with them, especially when you don’t know why and don’t speak his language,” Loewenthal told KNI. “So our volunteers go with them, explain what is happening and tell them everything is okay.”
Bridging this barrier and guiding the refugees, as well as making connections, is the main work OMEA is doing right now.
“The [refugees] are relieved to be out of danger, but they have arrived in a different country, and might not know what to do and where to turn. Our volunteers are the first to meet them and speak to them in Ukrainian. Our volunteers guide them to where they can get a free meal, and the city of Záhony gives them shelter for a few nights. Usually, they continue to Budapest and from there to other places in Europe. Many have friends or family somewhere in Europe.”
Some refugees, however, have nowhere to go. Initially, OMEA arranged for places for them to stay in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and other places to start a new life. Now, however, after having worked in the area for two months, all their connections in Europe are full.
There is, however, an opposite trend as well. As the weeks go by, many Ukrainians are now going back into Ukraine. Some go back because they hope the war will be over soon, and some because they feel that if this war will go on for months and years, they need to learn to live with it. Many probably left fathers or brothers behind in Ukraine, who are not allowed to leave, and want to reunite with them.
So for the last few times Loewenthal has gone to Hungary, he has crossed the border into Ukraine to visit Chop, while most of his team stays in Záhony to help the refugees there.
Before the war, Chop had a steady population of 40% Ukrainians, 40% Hungarians, and 20% others. It belonged to Hungary until the end of WW1, when it became part of Czechoslovakia, and then it was annexed by the Soviet Union into Ukraine after WW2. The city is an important railway junction between the countries.
“I have been three times is Ukraine by now, and have met with the mayor of Chop. It used to be a city with 9,000 people, and now they have 15,000 people.”
This is what we call displaced people or internal refugees. They are in Chop not necessarily in order to continue to Hungary or Slovakia, but to stay in a safer western part of the country and wait out the war. This has led to the city doubling its size in a very short time.
“They are staying in a school and sleeping on the floors. So I started a program to make them bunk beds. I met a pastor in Chop who put me in contact with a local carpenter. He is making the bunk beds for us for half the price of what you would find in Ikea.”
While going in and out of Chop arranging for these things, most of the OMEA team are still working in Záhony with the refugees and gaining a reputation among the local people of the municipality and with the other aid organizations.
“They see what we are doing and appreciate it. We can show our faith through what we are doing. We are open letters to the world,” Loewenthal said.
One of these organizations that is also there is the Jewish Agency, looking for Jewish refugees who wish to move to Israel.
“I became a friend of the person in charge there. They know we are Messianic, and at first they asked us if we help people only if they come to our faith. I answered we don’t sell our faith. I explained we are here because of our faith, but we are doing the humanitarian work because the people of Ukraine were in need. The interesting thing is that when [the Jewish Agency staff] first arrived, they just stood there and waited for Jewish refugees to find them. But after seeing how we Israelis are doing things, they started to help us as well.”
What would you say are your biggest challenges?
“As a small non-profit, we can’t stay for two-three months like the UN agencies or other large non-profits. We raise our support on a weekly basis. While being there with one volunteer group, I raised the money for the next group. Sometimes it’s also hard to find people willing to go. So support and volunteers, those are our biggest challenges. Another challenge is that I think we need to plan already what to do on the day after, once the war is over. How can we help Ukraine rebuild?”
Loewenthal is also frustrated when he sees the needs first-hand and notices how scarce the help is, when many governments could do so much more.
“I wish our government did more. It should do a lot more. I can’t even fully explain this desire after having worked almost two months at the border. If you have any Ukrainian and Russian-speaking readers in Israel, I’d like to appeal to them to unite somehow to push our government to do more. We need a bigger mobilization. It is through the labor of regular lay people that work is accomplished.”
How can KNI’s readers pray for you?
“Pray for our next steps. God has opened doors for OMEA to have contact with many bigger European non-profits, and they all know who we are and what we believe. As a smaller non-profit, we are more flexible, we can more easily go to many places, so pray that we will know how to use these contacts to enhance God’s plan. We also need guidance on how to develop the next phase of the Ukrainian project. I think it will be inside Ukraine, helping the locally displaced and rebuild areas. Maybe arrange suitable help for elderly internal refugees. I believe the body of the Messiah in Israel can play an important role in this.”