“Although it is hardly reported in the media, two or three and sometimes up to 10 people are killed every day in clashes in the region of Donetsk in Ukraine,” says Jewish Agency emissary Max Lurye. “People who live in that area constantly hear explosions, and this has contributed to an unstable situation for all residents, including Jews.”
Donetsk has come under heavy shelling from the Ukrainian Army since it was taken over by pro-Russian separatists in April 2014.
While aliya from Ukraine was down to 5,500 in 2016 from over 7,200 the year before, Lurye says, he expects it to go up again. “After the war broke out in 2014, many Jews just fled and wanted to go to Israel immediately,” Lurye says in a telephone interview from his home in Dnipro (previously Dnepropetrovsk), the country’s fourth largest city almost 400 kilometers southeast of the capital, Kyiv. “Now thanks to our partnership with the Ofek Israel Public Company and Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption there are more options of doing seminars, learning Hebrew, meeting with Israeli representatives and planning for their future aliya more effectively. So I think the decrease in aliya is temporary.”
No one knows exactly how many Jews there are in Ukraine today, says Lurye. “We think that there are about 200,000, but we are still receiving new requests from people who were not listed in our system before. In 2016 alone, we received 13,000 such requests for information on Israel from individuals eligible for aliya, thanks to the cooperation of the Jewish Agency with the Ofek Israel Public Company,” he says.
Born in Ukraine 34 years ago, Lurye himself made aliya 10 years ago, completed his MA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, married Nataly Nabitovsky and had three children.
“I met my wife in Ukraine when she was sent here by the Jewish Agency to work in its camps,” Lurye says. “That’s why I always say I owe the Jewish Agency. We were sent together as Jewish Agency emissaries two and half years ago to Ukraine. I am the regional director, responsible for the eastern section of Ukraine and areas on the border with Russia, while she is responsible for other key areas. When we left, we had no idea of the war that was awaiting us, and that we were going to be doing our ‘shlichut’ (mission) under fire.”
They arrived in Ukraine two weeks before Passover in 2014, and on the second day of the holiday, when the country’s fifth largest city Donetsk was taken over by pro-Russian separatists, all members of its Jewish community received written orders to register themselves with the municipality and pay a fine of 50 dollars.
“Suddenly we understood that we were witnessing something that was not okay, and could cause harm to the Jews living in the communities in that area,” Lurye said. “So we began getting involved in all kinds of activities that I think most Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) are not involved in, including getting Jews out of war-torn areas. It was at that time that we also decided to set up a refugee camp in Dnipro for Jews who wanted to go to Israel.”
He notes that the camp is still taking in about 30 to 100 new people every month. Jews from the war-torn areas have undergone severe trauma, and this needs to be dealt with before they go on aliya, he says. “We have to explain to them as best as we can how to deal with this trauma and prepare for their move to Israel,” he says. “It’s important for them to have a contact in Israel, where they know they can receive help. That’s why it’s important for the Jewish Agency and Diaspora Jewry to show that we care and are ready to provide a helping hand whenever we can.”
Roman Polonsky, director of the Jewish Agency’s Department for Russian-speaking Jewry, says aliya from Ukraine has actually tripled itself in the last three years. “In 2013, there were about 2,000 olim, in 2014 it jumped to approximately 6,000, in 2015 it was more than 7,000, and in 2016, it was more than 5,500.”
“The decrease last year is understandable,” he says. “The situation there is quieter than it was in the years of revolution, the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war on the eastern border. People have become accustomed to the situation. But if the economic situation does not improve, this will be a major trigger for aliya from Ukraine. Unemployment is increasing, prices jumped substantially four months ago, and I know that the government is trying to eliminate corruption, but it’s very difficult. At the same time, the war in the east is continuing, and all this creates a challenging situation, for all Ukrainian citizens, and especially Jews, who have the possibility of making aliya.”
The Jewish Agency has helped Jews fleeing the war zones in the east by providing them with a secure passage and resettling them, many of them in Dnipro.
“We then helped those who want to come to Israel to make aliya, and provided them with appropriate tracks of absorption after they landed,” Polonsky says. “Many Jews in Ukraine were in a desperate situation, and we expanded the number of our shlichim, seminars, Israel Fairs, Employment Fairs and other activities, together with our partners, Ofek Israel Public Company the Ministry of Aliya and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency’s Aliya Unit.”
“Employment is the main concern of potential olim,” he says. “Only if you can find your place in Israel professionally can you be sure to have a home and raise your children properly.”
Despite its antisemitic past, Polonsky does not consider Ukraine an antisemitic country today.
“I don’t see antisemitism in Ukraine on the government level,” he says. “There are undercurrents of antisemitism in the country, but much less than countries like France. For Ukrainians, their big fight is not with Jews but with Russians. Jews are generally respected in Ukraine, and I have not seen any disturbing incidents of antisemitism recently.”
Polonsky estimates that there are some 3 million Russian-speaking Jews in the world today, about 20 percent of the total Jewish population, with over a million in Israel, 800,000 in the US, 500,000 in Russia, 250,000 in Germany, more than 100,000 in Canada, and 30,000 in Australia.
He says the Jewish Agency provides Russian-speaking Jews with four platforms to develop their Jewish identity:
1. Summer Camps: In 2016, more than 8,000 youngsters participated in Jewish Agency camps in 16 locations across the former Soviet Union, while others attended camps in the US, Canada and Australia.
2. Israel Experience: More than 3,500 young Jews were brought to Israel last year in the framework of Birthright or Masa.
3. Young Leadership: The Jewish Agency has programs all over the world to develop leaders among the younger generation. In the Russian-speaking world, it also has 5,000 Jews learning Hebrew in its ulpanim, and 3,000 participants in Sunday schools.
4. Aliya: Immigration to Israel from Russia was up last year to about 7,000 compared to 6,700 the year before and many “hidden Jews” (whose existence not known before) in the former Soviet Union have registered with the Jewish Agency activities over recent years.
“Our aim is to strengthen their Jewish identity, which is difficult because they were detached from their Jewish roots for almost 70 years, to connect them to Israel, bringing Israel to them or bringing them to Israel, and to motivate them to be involved in Jewish collective life, which is also not so simple,” Polonsky says. “Russian-speakers perceive our Jewishness differently. For us, Jewishness is first of all nationality, because it was written in our passports in the former Soviet Union. It’s easier with the second generation, but it’s still a challenge.”