Joshua Franklin didn’t plan on being a rabbi.
But “on a whim” he took a Jewish studies course during his first semester at Clark, becoming a history major with a focus on the Holocaust and genocide history and a concentration in Jewish studies. He earned his master’s in history, finding inspiration in his thesis subject: Rabbi Leo Baeck, leader of the German Jewish community under the Nazis. Franklin went on to pursue rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College.
“Clark helped me find some direction, helped me find myself in really profound ways,” he says. “I actually give credit to Clark for me winding up where I am today in the rabbinate.”
These days, a normal week finds Rabbi Franklin holding Shabbat services at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, New York, where he is a member of the clergy, teaching classes, or visiting those with pastoral needs.
But earlier this spring, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Franklin found himself, like so many, wanting to do whatever he could to help the Ukrainian people. His congregation partnered with a nearby Ukrainian church to gather a truckload of medical supplies to ship to Ukraine. Eventually, they partnered with a rabbinic mission to bring money and supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
That’s how Franklin ended up in Krakow with a group of 25 rabbis from across the United States and Israel in mid-April. It was an eye-opening experience.
“We partnered with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Krakow, which transformed their entire mission and vision, and dedicated all of their resources, to helping refugees,” he explains. “They became a center where refugees could receive food, shelter, toiletries medical supplies, childcare, Polish classes, psychological services, you name it. And they did so because of the fundamental Jewish value of helping those who are in need.”
He notes the fortuitous timing of the trip, which immediately preceded Passover, the holiday that commemorates the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The Passover narrative, he says, “is a reminder that we were all once refugees at some point. And that should compel us to remember the suffering the pain, the anguish, that refugees often feel, and it should compel us to want to help them in any way we possibly can.”
Franklin says one of the most surprising things about the trip was seeing the extent to which the Polish people have opened their homes and welcomed Ukrainian refugees. He explains that in Poland there are not the camps full of refugees so commonly seen in similar conflicts. “The majority of refugees are actually staying in the homes of the Polish people who are opening up their spare bedrooms in a real, incredible act of not just hospitality, but of showing love to a neighbor when they really need it,” he says.
The story of one Ukrainian woman he met has stuck with him. She fled to Krakow at the outset of the war and found support at the JCC. She shared that her 5-year-old daughter wakes up screaming every night because of the trauma of watching their city being bombed. The woman insisted she would raise her daughter to hate the Russians.
“That was soul-piercing,” Franklin reflects. “To be able to have that much pain to say that — it was just very hard to hear. But I think it’s a reality that a lot of Ukrainians are feeling.”
Franklin came away from Krakow inspired by the hospitality being shown to refugees. “The Polish people have raised the bar incredibly high. They’ve been an exemplar of refugee relief.”
Rabbi Franklin also has a message for fellow Clarkies, or anyone who wants to change the world: not all change has to be radical, or large in scale. He says that what his group was able to accomplish may seem like “nothing but a drop in the bucket” (an expression that comes from Hebrew scripture), but that it had meaning for those they reached.
“We know we’re not going to stop the war, we’re not going to influence a treaty between Russia and Ukraine, and we’re not going to solve the refugee crisis,” he says. “But our actions do matter, no matter how big or small they are.”