I’ll never be able to forget the faces of the Foris family which I met at the Jewish Agency’s refugee center, just days after the Russian army had started attacking Ukraine. It was only then, in a Warsaw hotel, that I realized that these are just ordinary people who have to run for their lives in order to be saved.
The Foris family left with only one set of clothes, and only a few days later arrived at the hotel in Warsaw – finally able to sleep on a bed, finally able to eat a warm meal.
Now, two months later, they are citizens of Israel and trying to rebuild their lives in Netanya.
BEFORE THE war broke out, there were about 90 employees of the agency in Ukraine – not all of them full-time workers. But as the war broke out, about 60 of them stopped working and tried to flee the country with their families. Therefore, at the beginning of the operation, the agency’s permanent team of employees was 15.
“We transferred personnel from Europe and Israel and reached 115 people in less than a week,” Yehuda Setton, the agency’s COO and manager of the rescue operation, told The Jerusalem Post. “Today our workforce is between 70 and 80 employees outside of Ukraine... and another 15 within Ukraine.”
There are fewer employees to date since the number of refugees has dropped substantially – not only Jewish refugees but in general.
The agency has learned a lot from the first few weeks of the operation.
When I first visited Poland, days after the war had begun, there were barely any permanent workers of the agency on the ground. When I visited the main hotel for Jewish refugees in Warsaw, there was only one Israeli emissary and two representatives of the Nativ government office that is in charge of identifying who is eligible to make aliyah according to the Law of Return.
A few weeks later, the situation has changed dramatically: tens of workers and volunteers, Israeli medical personnel volunteering at many of these centers and Jewish communities have all been assisting this complicated and dramatic effort around the clock.
OPERATION IMMIGRANTS Come Home for aliyah from Ukraine and bordering countries has welcomed 13,391 new immigrants in the past two months, according to Aliyah and Integration Ministry statistics.
Four hundred and twenty-seven new immigrants landed on Wednesday, and most of them weren’t from Ukraine, but from Russia and Belarus. On Tuesday, 109 new immigrants arrived in Israel as part of the operation, but only 32 of them were from Ukraine.
According to the ministry, 64% of the new olim are from Ukraine, yet the trend that is strengthening now is aliyah from Russia – and the numbers are increasing.
Of the new immigrants who arrived, 4,053 chose to spend the first weeks in Israel in one of the 37 hotels rented by the ministry in advance – meaning that a vast majority of the olim have family or close friends in Israel and are living with them temporarily.
The agency said on Thursday that it has received more than 33,000 inquiries to its emergency call centers.
“In the beginning of the operation, Ukraine was the main focus of immigration, and the numbers are still high,” Setton told the Post, “but we’re seeing a large influx of immigration from Russia and Belarus.”
He said that the agency is spread across the many borders of Ukraine – something that wasn’t as effective at the beginning of the operation, and was also something I’ve criticized in this very column.
“We have opened more massive front offices at each of the border points,” he added. “In Moldova there was a certain presence, and now it is a lot more significant,” Setton said.
The agency estimates that it was involved in rescuing and assisting 15,000 to 20,000 Jews from Ukraine, of whom 12,500 actually stayed at the agency’s facilities.
Setton estimates that another 7,000 to 10,000 Jews exist in Ukraine and are eligible to leave.
He said that “there are organizations that are trying to portray a situation of tens of thousands of Jews who need assistance to leave, but I always ask them to send me a list of names and information. Many times they decline to send such a list, and it’s not just because of privacy.”
Setton was hinting that there are many organizations in Ukraine and outside of Ukraine that are trying to assist the Jews of the suffering country, yet not all of the numbers these organizations are reporting are accurate.
Furthermore, the amount of money being raised for assisting Ukrainian Jews is in the hundreds of millions of US dollars, if not more. It is very difficult to trace all of these funds and see what was actually invested in saving Jews and what hasn’t been invested yet.
ONE OF the main organizations dealing with the crisis is the Joint Distribution Committee, funded by North American Jews and with a large representation of the ground.
The JDC provided more than 32,700 refugees with vital necessities, such as food, medicine and psychosocial aid, as they crossed from Ukraine into Romania, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – places where JDC is often their first line of support.
In addition, the JDC fielded over 15,200 incoming emergency hotline calls, resolved thousands of the requests and made over 21,500 outgoing calls.
It has evacuated more than 11,900 Jews and delivered more than 217 tons of humanitarian aid, including food, medicine, soap and other crucial supplies to Jews sheltering in Ukraine and those who have fled to Moldova.
Amos Lev-Ran, director of the Division for External Relations, JDC-FSU at JDC, said that, “surprisingly, our bank and food cards that we distribute to our clients – elderly Jews in Ukraine – still work. In many regions of Ukraine, it is still possible to use these cards and get to the supermarket and use them.
“There are places where this system does not work, and we bring food and medicine through a very massive operation of humanitarian aid, in cooperation with the [International] Fellowship [of Christians and Jews] and Latet organization. We transport the equipment to Odessa and from there to the areas most in need of this assistance.”
Lev-Ran added that “when it comes to drugs, they save lives. It is critical to reach people who need food and medicine... because the needs are very great. The needs are critical.”
The JDC’s call center, Lev-Ran said, also saved many lives. “The call center is based in Israel, and there are 20 lines that receive calls in parallel. All data are streamed into our system and retrieved every two hours by our local chapters, called Hasadim.
“I’ll give you an example of one of the cases. A woman called from Kharkiv while there was shelling in the area and she was stuck at home with a baby, for whom she had no food. Within two hours a volunteer arrived at her doorstep with food.
“Our work within Ukraine is based on the infrastructure that existed before the war, because through it one can understand our activities during the war,” he added. “We have hundreds of charity workers and thousands of homecare workers. In addition, we have dozens of workers in the JDC’s four offices.”
“Our home-caregivers are heroes,” Lev-Ran said. “Many of them now live at the homes of our clients. Some of the clients now also live in the homes of the caregivers themselves. This is aid that miraculously continues, for the most part, despite the difficult conditions. There are specific places where all of the workers have continued, and there are other places that are prioritized according to urgency.”
In order to adapt quickly and easily to the new immigrants, the Israeli government approved this week the provision of rent assistance to all immigrants in Operation Immigrants Come Home. The grant will be given automatically, without the need to present income tests and without the requirement to present a lease.
The grant will be given monthly for a period of one year from the immigration date to Israel. These grants will be NIS 2,300 per month for individuals, NIS 2,900 for couples with up to two children and NIS 3,400 for families with three or more children. Eligible and homeless immigrants will also receive significant assistance ranging from NIS 1,750 to NIS 2,150 per month for 12 months.
These grants will be given in addition to the refugees’ fund payments, which are between NIS 6,000 and NIS 15,000 per family, and the monthly absorption payments of NIS 2,700 to NIS 6,400 per family for a period of six months. All of these are given subject to the family composition of the immigrant.
Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said on Thursday that “over 13,000 new immigrants who immigrated as a result of the war are absorbed daily by employees of the Aliyah and Integration Ministry throughout the country with diligence and sensitivity. As part of the ‘Immigrants for the Holiday’ campaign, hundreds of families around the country will host at their Seder tables families of new immigrants who have just experienced their own private exodus from Egypt, for a very exciting moment.”
BACK TO the Jewish Agency, Setton said that it has invested in a new technological control center. “All of our data is technological, and I’m not talking about Excel spreadsheets, but the whole array is technological from start to end. We collect people’s information and date from the first time they call our call center or even approach us via WhatsApp till they get on an airplane to Israel.”
Yet there are certain reasons for the decline in numbers of Ukrainians leaving the county. The agency receives a daily and sensitive intelligence report that contains confidential information that has identified two trends that prevent people from leaving Ukraine.
The first is the bombings, which are more intense, and people are afraid to go out. The Russian army also began to set up checkpoints, so people were afraid to cross.
The second trend among Ukrainians was a feeling that they were winning the war, and they felt this was a time to stay and defend the homeland.
Therefore, the agency launched a campaign on TV and radio in Israel, calling for those with family members in Ukraine to connect the organization with them, in order to offer assistance to leave safely.
One thousand nine hundred and twenty people are currently being addressed as a direct result of this campaign. Setton said that 100 of them have already left the country, and that he and his team are trying to assist the remaining, yet many of them are in dangerous locations or difficult situations – for example, an elderly woman who needs medical help 24/7.
The agency is trying to find appropriate institutions in Israel that can house them. The operation of saving these Jews is now also in a stage where they are at times driven by disguised vehicles in order not to raise the Russians’ suspicion.
REGARDING RUSSIAN Jews, most of the official Israeli organizations won’t speak on or even off the record. The situation in Russia is so delicate, yet most of the younger generation of Jews want to leave as soon as possible.
As opposed to Ukrainian Jews, who are considered refugees, who can flee to many European countries, Russian Jews can mainly flee to Israel – and receive urgent assistance and housing – even though they aren’t technically refugees.
The JDC is also active in Russia, yet it isn’t a situation of war, but, rather, an economic crisis. Lev-Ran said that 30,000 elderly people are getting aid from JDC in Russia, in addition to Jewish activities and other sorts of assistance.
“The inflation in Russia has grown, and there is a significant impact on the economy because of the sanctions,” Lev-Ran said. “Therefore, the price of the services we provide is growing, and at the same time our elderly clients’ economic situation has worsened. This makes the work of the JDC more important.”
Many of the official government or national institutions are now trying to see to it that the mistakes made in the 1990s with the olim from the former Soviet Union won’t repeat themselves in 2022.
One of the initiatives the agency is working on is to start focusing on the professions of the recent and future olim from Ukraine and Russia. Setton explained that “for instance, we are thinking of sending the immigrants to specific hotels or areas with other people that have the same or similar professions.”
Furthermore, the agency hopes to try to assist the refugees in regard to the acceptance of many academic certificates that currently may not be accepted by Israeli government offices.
With the holiday of Passover beginning Friday night, all of the organizations involved have been trying to create the most normative holiday experience possible.
The JDC has sent over two tons of matzah to refugees in Moldova and neighboring European countries. In addition, the organization has sent 16 tons of matzah to Jews within Ukraine.
JDC also republished a Russian Passover Haggadah and printed 5,000 copies with a new introduction that relates to the war. This Haggadah was created during the fall of Communism era in 1990 by the JDC and is now needed again to assist Jews who are trying to live in freedom, but not all of them are able to do so.