140 Ukrainian olim arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday morning, on a plane chartered by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, as part of its ‘Freedom Flight’ program.
The program began in December 2014, soon after the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with monthly aliya flights to rescue Jewish refugees from the war-torn Donbass region.
“There hadn’t been a Jewish refugee problem since World War II, so there was no organization set up to absorb them,” IFCJ founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.
IFCJ, which had already been working in the Former Soviet Union for many years, began supporting the Jews who fled the Donbass region with the provision of a refugee camp, converted from a summer camp that IFCJ and Chabad ran for Jewish children.
“Psychologically, in the first year, I think a lot of them thought they would go back, but after a year they realized the Russians weren’t leaving and there was nothing to go back to even if they could go back, so they were open to coming to Israel,” recounts Eckstein. In December 2014, IFCJ, which had already been working for years together with the Jewish Agency on aliya operations, decided to found its own independent program to bring Ukrainian Jews to Israel.
IFCJ swiftly expanded its aliya operation to include Jews from secure areas of Ukraine, as well as from some 20 countries around the world. The program provides the olim with guidance before and after aliya, in addition to financial and social support to help them integrate into their new country. This year it has brought over a total of 2,223 Ukrainian olim to Israel.
Jewish refugees from the Donbass region still comprise a significant portion of those headed to Israel from Ukraine.
Liubov and Alexey Jashta are one such couple. They are from an area of Donetsk battered by violence since the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and have subsequently been driven out of their country. They told the Post hours before their aliya – as they took part in a preparatory IFCJ seminar about life in Israel – that they did not feel safe in their home. In addition, the war hit their economic security.
Both of them lost their jobs at a local factory, along with many of their colleagues.
The Jashtas received aid from an IFCJ-funded charitable organization called Chesed, which provided them with medicine and food at a time when the shelves in the stores were empty.
Liubov is an engineer and Alexey a technician; both are aged 63 and are eager to pick up their careers again in Israel.
Why Israel and not another part of Ukraine? “We don’t have any prospects in other areas of Ukraine. Nobody is waiting for us there,” they answer.
In big cities, such as Kiev, the cost of living is expensive and it’s hard to find a place to live, while in the small cities it is difficult to find work. Moreover, the Jashtas lament that refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk do not receive a warm welcome in other areas of Ukraine; they are often held responsible for the 2014 referendums held by the separatist republics, in which the majority voted in favor of independence from Ukraine. They say that negative preconceptions about residents of the Donbass area have since increased and have also been propagated by the media.
The Jashtas are excited and nervous about their new lives in Afula, in northern Israel.
Though they note that a life change of this kind is not easy at their age, they are hopeful that Israel will be good to them.
For Yevhen Lampakov, 42, Israel is the final destination of a journey of rediscovery.
The Kiev native has dreamed of moving to Israel since the age of 22, when he learned about Israel’s Law of Return, which allows for anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel.
Lampakov’s grandfather was Jewish. His mother, however, hid her Jewish origins – as many Jewish Ukrainians did – with memories of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews casting a dark shadow over their identity. Lampakov’s mother objected to her son’s ideas of moving to Israel, afraid of the country’s security situation. He dutifully laid his dreams aside and remained in Ukraine.
When his mother passed away of cancer in 2013, the thought of aliya resurfaced in his mind. His mother had told him that the original documents proving her father’s Jewish identity had been destroyed, but while clearing out his mother’s apartment, he stumbled across the original copy of her birth certificate, which literally fell on him as he opened the door of one of her cupboards.
Thus the preparations for his and his wife Valentina’s aliya began. Lampakov has been taking Hebrew classes in Kiev, which proved to be a source of strengthening to the connection he already felt to Judaism and Israel. He told the Post that he found himself relating to many of the stories his teacher told of her life in Israel, and strongly identified with her attitude toward life. The Lampakovs will settle in Rishon Lezion, where they hope to start a family.
Meanwhile in the Mykhailo family, Nadia and Yuriy followed their son to Israel. 17-year-old Plakida’s desire to move to Israel began with a girl he met at a Jewish Agency summer camp in Ukraine at the tender age of 14.
The girl told him she was making aliya and he wanted to go with her. “At first I only thought about the girl,” he confesses three years later, “but then I understood that it was a good opportunity for life in general.” He made good on his word and from age 14 to 17 he went to high school in Israel as part of Naaleh, an Education Ministry and Jewish Agency program.
Plakida connects more with the Israeli people and the mentality of the country than he does with Ukraine. He says that while in Ukraine he finds the culture to be individualistic, in Israel he feels that the people are united.
His supportive parents Nadia and Yuri are now joining him in the country and making their home in Haifa.
Before the olim dispersed to their new homes across Israel, they were greeted by a festive Hanukka reception, including gifts and donuts at the airport. Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver attended the celebration and lit the fourth Hanukka candle together with the children.
Eckstein says that as many olim as he has welcomed over the years, he is still moved each time another plane lands.
“This is their life – they are in anxiety. I’m an oleh, I know what it’s like,” says the American-born rabbi. “I can understand the anxiety and the turmoil and we want to make that as comfortable a process as possible, and for them to a reach a point when they themselves can contribute to society and not just be on the receiving end.”
In addition, Eckstein finds aliya spiritually moving. “As an Orthodox Jew I believe in kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles.”
He adds that the organization’s Christian donors believe in the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel and others, “who talked about the day when the Jews would come from the four corners of the world to Israel. I see that as today,” Eckstein says.
The rabbi cites the biblical verse “There is hope for your future; your children will come again to their own land.”
“Between the spiritual excitement of seeing the miracle of kibbutz galuyot happening in front of our eyes and being a participant in that, and on a human level seeing people who are struggling to get their feet on the ground to start life again, to give them another chance to live in freedom in Israel is exhilarating and fulfilling and gives me the fuel to keep going.”