Reporter's Notebook: For Ukrainian communities outside the war zone, life must continue

Reporter makes Journey with Ukranian Jews set to make aliya, flee civil war.

New immigrants from Ukraine make aliya, December 30, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
New immigrants from Ukraine make aliya, December 30, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s 1:30 a.m.
I am standing outside my hotel in Kiev watching just over 100 Jews load into buses for the ride to Boryspil International Airport where they will board planes to take them to Israel. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews flew me here to witness this moment, the second flight of its Ukrainian aliya program. The first, landed in Tel Aviv in December carrying more than 200 souls.
It’s dark on the bus with the streetlights outside tending to cast a sinister pall over the people sitting inside, but the atmosphere is as jubilant as it’s possible to be at such an hour. Leaning forward, his pitted and scarred face wreathed in shadow, one immigrant grinned widely.
His happy expression cut through the midnight gloom, an apt visual representation of both the joy and sadness of leaving behind one’s home.
Many of the immigrants expressed happiness to be coming to Israel and to escape the horrors of eastern Ukraine with a number saying that they had been thinking about such a move even before the war.
Alex, the scarred young man, said he “didn’t know” why he didn’t make aliya before, but he was happy to go with his father now as his mother and younger brother had already gone several months before.
Leaning back in the seat next to him, his father agreed in broken English.
A second young man with a kippa proudly pulled out an Israeli passport and said that he had briefly lived in Israel years ago and that it was good to return.
There was none of the gloom I had witnessed among a similar group of immigrants almost a year earlier with whom I shared a nighttime flight to Israel out of Dnepropetrovsk and while their departure seemed bittersweet, those who spoke to me all were enthusiastic about the chance to start over in a nation without war.
One young man who declined to give me his name said he was happy that Israel was giving him a place to flee, and he was deeply disappointed in his government for allowing Ukraine to deteriorate in such a way.
After seeing the refugees off I made my way to domestic departures to try and sleep (unsuccessfully) on a bench for the rest of the night until it was time for my midmorning flight to Dnepropetrovsk.
I run into my friend Zelig Brez, the director of the local Jewish community. Arriving at the Menorah Center I message him on WhatsApp and he runs downstairs to greet me. We hug and sit to drink coffee and eat. I’m tired and decide not to ask him about the recent controversial actions of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the community’s benefactor and regional governor, and of the people responsible for financing the war against the separatists. I didn’t get enough sleep for politics today.
Kolomoisky’s decision to use militiamen from a battalion he financed to protect his business interests last week became a major scandal in Ukraine, pitting him against fellow oligarch and President Petro Poroshenko. It is possible that this could reflect badly on the Jewish community with whom he is so intimately identified.
After we eat Zelig invites me upstairs into the complex’s well appointed banquet hall to witness the filming of an online video in which an Azerbaijani-born rabbi explains the significance and order of the Seder in Russian.
In a few weeks many local families will hold their Seders together in this hall and each ought to know what they are saying, explained Zelig.
Because of the fact that this video will be available online, Zelig hopes that it will become popular throughout the former Soviet Union and even in Israel, with its large Russian-speaking population, and become a “revolution” in Passover education.
Over the past 25 years the number of people coming to the communal Seders has increased by leaps and bounds. They have become to unwieldy and large to be run by a single emcee.
“Most of those who come to the public Seders aren’t deeply observant and it’s important to have a connection to the emcee of the Seder. This Seder in this hall is one of the biggest, with 1,500 people who come and want to be part of it, but with such a large number one person without a microphone can’t lead, so the community now goes into a new project to teach every single father and person what is the Seder all about, how to do it and how to live it,” he explained.
I’m in a car with Rabbi Mendel Cohen traveling from Dnepropetrovsk to his congregation in Mariupol, right behind the front lines.
At one checkpoint they pull us over, seeing from the his license plates that the rabbi is from Donetsk Oblast. The rabbi smiles, explains who he is and where he is going and with a return grin, we are allowed to pass.
Despite the bombings and poverty, he remains optimistic about the community.
Hundreds of people and families receive food, clothing and other aid from the organized community. The local institutions have managed to stay open to serve their increasingly poor constituents.
“If not for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews I don’t know what would be,” he said, adding that the community’s humanitarian programs are being funded by the group.
In Dnepropetrovsk eight children belonging to eight separate families from his community are being processed by the Jewish Agency for aliya without their parents, who will come later, the rabbi tells me as we drive.
While the city has been bombarded, it’s still under government control but the shelling and economic dislocations have hit the community hard. At least 100 members of the “circle closest to the synagogue” have made aliya, he added.
Asked how many people have left to become internally displaced people, he replied that “people are always coming and going.”
Given the war and concomitant difficulty for people to make a living the rabbi believes that the city will see a “large wave” of aliya this summer.
However, he says, the community will remain to provide services and keep the flame of Judaism alive in this war-torn land.