KIEV – “Welcome to Israel, even if we still are in Ukraine,” Ofer Dahan quipped in rapid Hebrew. As his words were translated, the largely somber crowd of Ukrainian refugees chuckled, their grim faces breaking out into smiles.
Dahan, who heads the aliya department of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, then began to remind his listeners how the process of immigration to the Jewish state would unfold and added that they, as people who had fled from the civil war in eastern Ukraine, would be well taken care of in Israel.
IFCJ, which raises money from a predominantly Christian donor base and has been involved in supporting Ukrainian Jewish institutions for years, had made arrangements with over 200 municipalities across Israel to ease the newcomers’ transition, Dahan explained.
“Everyone who comes to a city, a representative of the local authority will be in touch with you personally,” he told the émigrés.
As their luggage was being loaded into large tractor trailers outside of the hotel in which they were meeting, IFCJ staffers began handing out tickets for Tuesday morning’s flight, the second such aliya charter plane organized by the group.
“We are pleased to be able to bring an additional 110 people on an IFCJ flight to Israel and to help them in the aliya process so they can finally, after a year of living as refugees, make Israel their new home,” the IFCJ explained. “In light of the increased demands from Jews in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world to come with the IFCJ on aliya, we are increasing our number of flights from Ukraine to bring more Jews to safety in their new home, Israel.”
Nearly 6,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from Ukraine last year, fleeing a Russian-backed insurgency in the country’s east and rampant inflation, according to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.
“Every generation has its own Exodus miracle. For many years the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews was instrumental in bringing almost one million olim from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia to Israel,” IFCJ founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post
“Now, we are undertaking that same calling to provide Ukraine’s Jewish refugees with a safe haven in their homeland. We promise to stand by Israel’s latest olim throughout their aliya and absorption process here in Israel.”
Eckstein first announced the new program in October, telling the Post that flights would begin within a matter of weeks, but it was not until late December that the first such flight arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, to be welcomed with a gala ceremony attended by Eckstein, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and Immigrant and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver.
While the agency was involved in last year’s flight, the IFCJ has since begun to go it alone, dealing directly with immigrants without the intermediary services of the group that has traditionally handled aliya on behalf of the state.
The agency was intensely critical of the IFCJ, with a senior official telling the Post that he believes that “these individuals were not processed by the Jewish Agency or by the relevant Israeli authorities, and they will therefore have to go through an arduous aliya process upon their arrival, should they choose to apply for Israeli citizenship…. It is unfortunate that, rather than working with the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel to address this wave of Ukrainian aliya and best serve the immigrants themselves, the IFCJ is attempting to go rogue, to the ultimate detriment of those they purport to serve.”
However, according to the ministry, all of IFCJ’s immigrants have already received immigration permits from Nativ, a government body operating under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office which is empowered to handle immigration from the former Soviet Union.
“They will receive exactly the same treatment from our ministry as all other immigrants,” said spokesman Elad Sonn.
“In other countries the Jewish Agency is in charge of [checking] eligibility for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, but in the former Soviet Union only Nativ does it. So nobody needs the Jewish Agency here,” Dahan said.
According to Eckstein, since December 2013, when Ukrainians filled Kiev’s Maidan Square in the revolution that would eventually lead to the current state of war with Russian-backed rebels, the IFCJ has donated more than $24 million to help Ukrainian Jews.
That includes “$19,035,000 specifically to Ukraine relief, and an additional $4,500,000 to the Jewish Agency for aliya from Ukraine, and about $500,000 for our aliya flights from Ukraine,” he said.
That aid includes food for those stuck behind the lines in rebel strongholds such as Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as for internally displaced people being taken care of by the American Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad, which has a large presence here.
According to Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the refugee rabbi of Donetsk, that aid extends to a large shipment of Passover matzot whose passage through the front lines he is currently negotiating for with Ukraine’s security services.
Speaking with the Post
, Elka Markovich, the wife of the rabbi of one of Kiev’s two Chabad congregations and the founder of the city’s Chabad International School, said that Eckstein had been supporting her community for the past 15 years but had really begun to expand his aid since the current crisis began.
Echoing other community leaders across the country, Markovich noted that the local middle-class donor pool had dried up just as her community began to feel the strain of having to care for an influx of refugees.
“The IFCJ gives us the opportunity to fill in the holes for what we can’t do ourselves,” she said, calling the group “essential to our activity.”
Elderly refugees at the local branch of the JDC-run Hesed social services network likewise said they were grateful to the IFCJ for helping to fund the JDC’s activities here.
The JDC spends approximately $50m. annually on programs for Ukrainian Jews and has spent nearly $4m. in responding to the current crisis since last year and is budgeting another $387,000 a month for the next half-year, said spokesman Michael Geller.
Tatiana, a former reporter from Donetsk whose father was Jewish, was among those in the audience listening to the aliya briefing on Monday.
“I heard the bombing all the time because my house was near the airport,” which was heavily fought over, she said, adding that she had really wanted to move for years, but she kept putting it off because she had “interesting work.”
Now that she has no home, she wants to go to the land of her fathers, which she said is “the place for me.”