Over two hundred new olim arrive on flight of IFCJ aliya initiative.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I have greeted many new olim at Ben-Gurion Airport, yet few homecomings have been as emotional and meaningful as the Ukrainian aliya flight that I welcomed to Israel this week.
I arrived at the airport half an hour before the first group of 110 immigrants on the latest Fellowship Freedom Flight from Ukraine was supposed to come out of processing as Israeli citizens. There were already dozens of people holding signs, singing songs and waving Israeli flags, waiting to greet these immigrants to the Holy Land.
It amazed me how total strangers came to the airport in the middle of the day, simply to show their support and appreciation for these newest Israeli citizens. From the time I was young I have heard the beautiful quotation from the Talmud that says “The people are all responsible for one another,” and here I was at Ben-Gurion Airport, watching those words come alive.
On top of random well-wishers and beloved family members of the new immigrants, around 50 girls from the Fellowship-funded Beit Ulpana program in Jerusalem came to the airport to greet the Ukrainian Jews.
The Beit Ulpana girls know the fears and hardships that these immigrants face, because not too long ago they were in the same position – they left their families and friends behind in the former Soviet Union and came to Israel for high school, alone, through a Fellowship-sponsored program.
“The beginning is hard, but it gets easier,” said a 17-year-old girl who came from Russia at the age of 14.
“And besides, the hard work pays off. There is no better feeling than establishing yourself in the Jewish people’s biblical homeland.” Just three years after she arrived in Israel, this girl was speaking perfect Hebrew.
There was great excitement and anticipation throughout the arrival hall as the Fellowship-chartered flight landed and 110 Ukrainian Jewish refugees were finally home. At the very moment that we were singing and dancing to celebrate their arrival, they were receiving their Israeli ID cards.
Members of the press crowded the airport, anxious to see the faces of the nation’s newest citizens. One thing I adore about Israel is that we love, appreciate and celebrate Jewish immigrants coming home. Many countries frown upon receiving immigrants, yet here in Israel we rejoice in it. The Land of Israel is the Jewish homeland, and each time a Jewish person comes home, this land is more complete.
Watching the Jewish Ukrainian families exit the airport waving Israeli flags, it gave me hope for the future, and connected me to our past. Israel is stronger because they are here, and the Jewish people is finally a nation, united, after 2,000 years of exile, here on this holy soil that was promised by God to our forefathers. The Jewish people is no longer scattered communities across the world; we are a unified, proud nation.
As I waved my Israeli flag, sang Hebrew songs, and danced with the younger generation of Jewish Russian immigrants, I realized that the timing of this Fellowship-chartered flight is very appropriate. Just one week before Passover, the holiday when we celebrate the Israelites going from slavery to freedom, these Jews experienced their very own redemption.
They came from a life of fear, danger and war, to a life of freedom in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
Every one of the 110 refugees on this Fellowship Freedom Flight has a powerful story of hardship, pain, hope and redemption. One elderly man lost his daughter a few weeks ago, when a shell hit their home in eastern Ukraine, killing her before his eyes. Many of them lived in Fellowship- sponsored refugee centers for weeks, after losing their homes and belongings to the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The past year has indeed been difficult, but these people are warriors.
As the new immigrants exited the airport terminal, their smiles were larger than life. The fear in their eyes was gone – replaced with hope and comfort.
Liora, the niece of the woman who was killed in eastern Ukraine, waited patiently to greet her uncle and grandfather who came home on the chartered flight. She could not praise The Fellowship enough. “I called everyone to try and help my family in Ukraine, and only The Fellowship came through to really help,” she told me. “You helped my uncle and grandfather escape the fighting in Donetsk, and now brought them home to Israel.”
I am lucky to live in these historic times, when Jews have a homeland to go to when persecution and war strike. As we celebrate the Seder meal on Passover next week, remember the Jews in Ukraine who are praying for freedom. They are yearning to come home – and it’s time for all of us to unite, and to make that dream a reality.
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.