2 immigrants from Ukraine describe their journey, new lives in Israel

ALIYAH AFFAIRS: Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister, was born in Kiev, Ukraine. “We hope that we integrate in Israel as well as she did.”

 NEW IMMIGRANTS from Ukraine, Alexandra Gerkerlva (right) and Alona Shyltseva. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NEW IMMIGRANTS from Ukraine, Alexandra Gerkerlva (right) and Alona Shyltseva.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Eleven years ago, Dr. Alexandra Gerkerlva, a Jewish university lecturer from Odessa, was in Israel for a conference at Ariel University. When she visited the Western Wall, for the first time in her life, she had just one request: “I really wanted to give birth to a child. I put my hands on the ancient stones and said, ‘Let it be a girl.’”

Two-years later, Gerkerlva gave birth to her daughter, Liza. 

Five weeks ago, the unmarried Gerkerlva made aliyah with her elderly parents and daughter. The first place she wanted to go was to Jerusalem’s Old City.

“I told Liza when we landed, ‘You know, I have the most powerful desire to visit the Kotel, since I asked God about you next to the wall.’ Liza asked me, ‘Can we go there together now?’”

Gerkerlva adds that “it’s sort of a miracle that we were able to visit the Kotel on our first day in Israel, since I had no idea where we would be sent in Israel. The representative at the airport asked me: ‘Do you want to go to a hotel in Jerusalem?’ I immediately said ‘Yes.’”

 PRAYERS AT the Kotel.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) PRAYERS AT the Kotel. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Her family received a taxi, funded by the government, which took them to the Grand Court Hotel in Jerusalem. They’ve been living there ever since. Luckily, the hotel is very close to the Old City. They put their suitcase in their room and went to the Wall.

I met Gerkerlva and a new friend of hers, Alona Shyltseva, a 26-year-old from Odessa, a medical nurse and also a new olah from war-torn Ukraine, at a Jerusalem hotel this week. They’re two of the some 10,000 Ukrainians who have moved to Israel since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“I grew up in Odessa, and I’ve always known that I’m Jewish. We weren’t one of those families that observed all the traditions and all that stuff, but I worked in the Jewish school as a teacher of English, and then at Chabad Jewish University,” explained Gerkerlva.

She actually still works as a lecturer in Ukrainian universities online. “My students are all over Europe,” she said.

Gerkerlva is divorced, and she arrived in Israel with her parents, 81-year-old Holocaust survivors. 

Her father was born in Ukraine in 1941, during the evacuation, and grew up in Kazakhstan for the first few years of his life, until the Nazi regime was conquered. 

“I never planned to leave,” she said. “I was working, living my life. I had everything I wanted. But when the war started, I understood that it would, it would be just dangerous to stay. There was no bomb shelter nearby. Even if there was a bomb shelter, it would be impossible for my parents to come down the stairs.” 

Since they heard of friends who were stuck at the Medyka border of Ukraine and Poland for five days, Gerkerlva decided to find a different route to leave the country. On March 9, about two weeks after the war began, she decided to go to Moldova with a bus organized by the Jewish community. 

“We had only a few hours to pack, and were told we could only bring one suitcase per family. It took us one day to get to Moldova.”

But when she saw a tennis court with 20 mattresses on the floor, she was very nervous, mainly for her parents.

“It was absolutely awful. I decided to leave because I understood that my parents just couldn’t stay there.” 

Luckily, she ran into a friend from Odessa who told her that the Jewish community of Moldova was offering them a place to stay. “It was a very nice room, like a hotel. And also there were maybe 150 other people staying there.”

Gerkerlva was afraid that she would have to wait for weeks till there would be an available meeting with the Israeli consul from Nativ, the official body that acknowledges whether Jews of the former Soviet Union can apply for aliyah.

“Luckily, I used to work for Nativ in Odessa, so I knew the consul and was able to quickly proceed with the paperwork. My Jewish connections came in handy,” she smiled.

A week later, they made aliyah.

So you didn’t realize when you passed the border that there were places for Jews to stay?

“No, I never knew about it. I originally was looking for a hotel room for one night. If my friend hadn’t run into me, I wouldn’t have known. 

What did you pack for four people?

“I took a bag of medicine for my parents and some dresses. Some necessary stuff and my favorite jewelry. I told my daughter that I have no room for any toys. She cried and asked to take just one teddy bear.”

SHYLTSEVA WAS listening to Gerkerlva’s story, tearing up occasionally. She speaks English but asked her friend to translate for her, because she was very emotional.

“I worked for a medical institution for people with cancer. I had been on a Taglit-Birthright program in Israel and fell in love with the country. I understood that I really wanted to start my medical career here as well and to continue medical theory here. So I was actually planning on making aliyah already, but not when I was fleeing for my life”.

She was emotional and said that “it wasn’t a very easy decision to leave, because I had to put all of my previous life behind me.”

When I asked when she had discovered her Judaism, she said, “It’s difficult for me to speak about my Jewish roots, because for 20 years I didn’t realize that my father was Jewish. For a long time I didn’t want to accept the fact that I had Jewish connections. I have a difficult family story involving him. I grew up with my mother and don’t have a good relationship with my father.”

So what have you been doing in Israel since you made aliyah?

Gerkerlva: “Lots of logistics. I also got intoxicated, and when to Terem with Alona. I thought I was dying. That’s how the two of us became friends. Alona took me to the Terem clinic in Jerusalem, and it was absolutely awful. I felt nausea and was vomiting, and they just told me, Okay, madame, wait in line. Things here in Israel seem so slow at times.”

Shyltseva: “I know that in the hospitals I worked at in Ukraine, if someone like her would come to the ER, we would treat her immediately. It must be a difference in mentality.”

Liza, nine years old, showed up, and I asked her mother if she was studying at any Israeli schools.

“Not yet; hopefully, next year. She’s still studying online at the Jewish school in Odessa. She’s going to have a lesson soon, but it’s not something that is more than a few hours a day.”

Where were you going to live?

Gerkerlva: “When I find out where I’m going to work, I will know. We are looking for a place for my parents in Hadera since we have relatives who live there. I want to settle them down there because when I go to work for some university, they will stay there and someone will be able to help take care of them. I was thinking of maybe living in Ariel and trying to get a job at the university there”

Shyltseva will start studying at Ulpan Etzion in Haifa in the middle of May. “I will learn Hebrew there and afterwards will attend a special medical ulpan so I’ll be able to take the nursing exams. That the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what I’m waiting for.”

I asked about the mentality differences between Ukraine and Israel. Gerkerlva said there are many differences. She feels as though Israelis work less than Ukrainians.

“Everything is so slow in Israel. For example, when I go to the bank in Ukraine, I have all the questions solved within an hour. But here it takes weeks.

“In Ukraine, I had my first lesson at eight o’clock in the morning. And then I had a break. Afterwards I would pick my daughter up from school, take her to dancing or painting classes. When we came home, I had my private lessons which I gave and university lessons on the Internet school. I prepared for my next day’s classes and had my consultations with the students. I would go to sleep very late. I would work for like 12 hours a day, maybe 10 hours a day.

“Here, there is no such culture. The offices I’ve been in touch with here say that now they are preparing for Shabbat. After that, they rest on Shabbat, but then it’s Passover – and they don’t work a week before the holiday. Of course, we had to get used to the fact that there isn’t any bread for a week.”

But they are very thankful to the Israeli government, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, the Jewish Agency and all of the people who assisted them.

“They’ve all been amazing,” they both tell me.

They love shwarma. “It’s so good,” Shyltseva said, adding: “This Israeli Golda ice cream store is amazing; in my opinion, it’s a lot better than Italian gelato.”

When I asked what her favorite flavor is, she smiled and said “there is one with white chocolate and pretzels, but I especially like the one with salty cashews. I had Golda ice cream when I was on Taglit-Birthright Israel a while ago; and when we landed in Israel, that was something that I was dying to find here.”

The two of them remind me that Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister, was born in Kiev, Ukraine.

“We hope that we integrate in Israel as well as she did,” they concluded and laughed.•