IRPIN, Ukraine – The outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was the final trigger for Alexandra Kravchenko and Ivan Omelchenko.
Fearing for their lives in their Lugansk home, and particularly for their young daughter, the couple decided to pack their bags and flee to Kiev. Arriving in the capital, and having abandoned their property, the family was in need of a place to live.
Kravchenko recalls that soon after they arrived in Kiev, she was talking to her husband about the need to help other refugees in their situation.
They stopped at a synagogue while having this conversation, and the very next day Kravchenko found an advertisement online for a hostel for refugees that was looking for a manager. She saw this as a sign from God. The family is currently residing in and running that hostel, but are preparing to make aliya.
Kravchenko – whose husband is halachicly Jewish – is in the process of converting to Judaism with the assistance of Maslul, a new project launched last April and founded by the Triguboff Institute, which assists FSU immigrants with personal status issues. The institute recently added a conversion course to its services, catering only to people who have already been approved as eligible for aliya, and offering those who are not halachicly Jewish the option of beginning the long conversion process before they move to Israel. They can complete two-thirds of the process before they even get to Israel, when they will be saddled with setting up their lives in a new country, Shalom Norman, director of the Triguboff Institute, explains.
He adds that the process is also important in preparing them for life in Israel and familiarizing them with Jewish traditions, as well as Zionist values.
“85% of FSU olim below the age of 40 are not halachicly Jewish,” Norman says, citing statistics provided by Prof. Ze’ev Khanin, chief scientist of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. “They don’t have full status, but they identify as Jewish,” he adds, saying this can cause problems for them, and for their children, further down the line, when they aren’t eligible for marriage or burial under the rabbinate.
The Maslul project is operated in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Nativ National Center for Identity and Conversion, as well the Triguboff’s local partners, the Midrasha Zionit in Kiev and the Choral Synagogue, headed by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, in Moscow.
This weekend, some 50 Maslul participants spent Shabbat together in Irpin, in the outskirts of Kiev. The Triguboff Institute hosted the event, in collaboration with the Jewish Agency and the Midrasha Zionit.
Attendees comprised a mix of young families, a variety of couples and singles. With varying degrees of Jewish knowledge and upbringing, they all share a thirst to learn more. The weekend consisted of numerous lessons covering topics such as identity, history and Halacha, as well as prayer services led by the head of the Maslul project, Rabbi Chaim Iram, and Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld, who is teaching the course in Kiev.
One participant, a young woman married to a Jewish man, said that Maslul provides all the knowledge needed to make an educated decision about conversion; her husband, who was not with her on the seminar, is indifferent as to whether or not she converts. It’s not uncommon to find this dynamic, whereby the halachicly Jewish half of the couple is far less invested in Judaism than the converting partner.
Olga Hana Krikun will be the first of the group to leave for Israel. This Thursday, she will arrive in her new home in Ashdod, together with her 12-year-old son. She herself is halachicly Jewish and doesn’t need to convert, but she decided to spend her last Shabbat in Ukraine with the Maslul group, feeling connected to the community and taking the opportunity to expand her knowledge.
Similar to several of the participants, when Krikun was growing up, her family tried to hide their Jewish identity, fearing that it could negatively impact their lives.
But when her son was faced with bullying at school, she decided to put him in a Jewish school, and that was the beginning of the gradual return to her Jewish identity – as her son learned more and more at his new school, so did she.
The mother and son will now join her parents, who are already living in Israel.
Krikun will soon be followed by Sergii Stetsenko and Elena Vinnytska, who are preparing for their October aliya to Tel Aviv. Stetsenko is halachicly Jewish, and his wife, Vinnytska, is in the process of converting. Vinnytska relates that when she was a young woman, she worked as a hairdresser in Vinizia, where she was surrounded by Jewish colleagues.
“They were like family to me,” she remembers, explaining that from the age of 19 she learned a lot from them and became enamored by their culture; she dreamed that one day she would marry a Jew. Now, Vinnytska is excited to share her husband’s happiness in returning to his historic homeland.
“Maslul and other organizations are taking the last seeds that can be taken from here, because another generation won’t be left to be taken,” Stetsenko says.
This echoes a message drummed home by Maslul teacher Esther Reyzer, who has flown in from Israel to lead educational sessions during the seminar. Reyzer herself made aliya to Israel from Russia at the age of 17, with her family. “This generation must make decisions and can return to its identity,” she tells The Jerusalem Post.
“Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, we are the generation of free speech, but it takes years to understand what to do with the freedom of speech. With time, this opportunity weakens, there is less connection with former generations and less connection to the traditions that were practiced by generations who are now gone,” she warns.
Participating in Maslul allows one to cement their place in the tribe and discover their link in the chain.
Liudmyla Sasina, for example, has been heavily invested in tracing her Jewish roots. She always knew about her Jewish grandfather, but had no Jewish upbringing, and, in keeping with the pattern, “they tried to keep it in the family,” she says.
When armed conflict erupted in Donetzk, she realized her place may not be there forever. Together with her sister, who is married to a Jewish man, she began to learn Hebrew at an ulpan, and gradually she began to think about making aliya. A February visit to Israel sealed the deal. “I felt this was my home, my place,” she gushes. “Even when I came back, my soul remained in Israel, only my body in Ukraine.”
After multiple trips to the archives in the village where her late grandfather used to live, she finally tracked down his adopted brother’s aunt, who help her retrieve the relevant documentation she needs to make aliya. Sasina says Maslul is the perfect fit for her, preparing her for Jewish life. Reflecting on the seminar, she says “Shabbat is a magical feeling and it’s yours. And you understand you are in the right place at the right time with the right people – it feels like a big family. It’s the realization that they are your people and there is a country that you belong to.”
“There are too many idiotic calls by people asking why we must bring all these goyim (non-Jews) to Israel,” says Norman. “These goyim are the seeds of Israel.
They have connected to the Jewish nation from a sociological perspective and we must do everything for them to be part of us. I think this a national task, and not just a task for Harry Triguboff in Australia.”