Jews in the Ukrainian town of Donetsk..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One year ago, as Israel was still reeling from Operation Protective Edge and continual terrorist rocket fire from Gaza, the conflict in Ukraine, which had been brewing for months since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, exploded into all-out war. Ukrainian cities were bombed by Russian forces. There was fighting in the streets, and phone lines were down in many areas. Communication with the outside world became difficult, if not impossible. The number of displaced Ukrainians forced to flee their homes due to the fighting grew dramatically in a very short period of time.
When I heard that eight people from the Jewish community were killed in this fighting, including a mother and her child who were out on a walk – she was pushing a stroller and a bomb fell nearby and killed them – the magnitude of the crisis hit home, and I knew we had to act. We immediately recruited International Fellowship of Christians and Jews volunteers, who courageously went into the cities at night, at great personal risk, finding those who were trapped and bringing them to safety to a Fellowship summer camp for children near Kiev that we had quickly converted into a refugee camp. We also hired armed guards to protect Jewish institutions, synagogues and day schools throughout Ukraine.
During my several visits to the embattled country during this time, I saw the extent of the devastation, and heard the fear in people’s voices. Jewish schools had armed guards stationed outside the door. At our refugee camp, I talked to a man who was there with his grandson. His daughter and granddaughter – the boy’s mother and sister – had been killed just the week before by a bomb in a city park. A woman told me her grandparents are survivors of the Holocaust, and she never thought this would be repeated two generations later during her own lifetime. She had to send her children ahead of her to safety; she was only able to join them later.
And yet, at our refugee camp, I witnessed a surreal but heartwarming scene: residents of the camp were so grateful for being taken away from the fighting and chaos that I was greeted with a small carnival-like celebration, complete with cotton candy. These were refugees who had to leave everything – and yet they took the time to greet me warmly, and thank the Fellowship and its supporters for caring about their plight.
It was then and there that I decided we would have to make a very serious long- term commitment to rescue these Jews in peril, to help them come to Israel, where they will be protected and free to practice their faith without fear of persecution. The Fellowship has supported aliya from the former Soviet Union (FSU) for many years, but this dire situation required special attention. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, two historic aliya flights left Ukraine for Israel in December 2014. Flights have continued on a monthly basis since then, and will continue until all Jews who want to leave this troubled and embattled region to come to Israel have done so.
There is a lesson here. Where there is despair, it is possible for us – all of us – to create hope, even among those who are suffering things that most of us, thank God, will never have to endure. As it says in Prophets: “So there is hope for your descendants,” declares Hashem. “Your children will return to their own land” (Jeremiah, 31:16). May it ever be so, and may Hashem continue to bless Israel and all those who give to provide for and protect her people.
The writer is a rabbi and founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.