On a balmy early summer day wandering the streets of Jerusalem, I find myself wishing I knew Russian.
No, I didn’t suddenly find the urge to read Anna Karenina in its original tongue. Rather, I wanted to absorb the intimate and harrowing stories of survival that I was hearing but was unable to understand.
As part of a delegation of former Israel trip participants of the Jewish women’s movement Momentum, 30 women – Israelis, new Russian immigrants to Israel, and Ukrainian refugees now making aliyah – all gathered to share how they’ve each coped with their world turning upside down.
The Israelis – many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union – know the journey of hastily packing a suitcase to escape oppression all too well. It doesn’t take much for them to recognize the unique mixture of trepidation, confusion, and even relief on the faces of the Russian and Ukrainian women before them.
The Ukrainian women are happy to be alive, but scared contemplating how they will build life anew in Israel.
Meanwhile, the Russian women enter the room fearing a hostile audience that could perceive them as aggressors in a conflict beyond their control.
“The Russian speakers were incredibly relieved to hear from the Ukrainian women, ‘We love you, there is no tension between us. We would love to be in touch.’”Anna Vainer
“The Russian speakers were incredibly relieved to hear from the Ukrainian women, ‘We love you, there is no tension between us. We would love to be in touch,’” says Anna Vainer, Momentum’s senior partner relationship manager in Europe and the former Soviet Union, who led the delegation. “And I literally saw their tension level drop.”
Significant research and human capital were invested to bring these women together. Tracking down a hastily fleeing immigrant, even in today’s age of social media, isn’t easy. Yet, the Momentum team was able to do so and bring them on board as an addendum to their May delegation to Israel – the first time the organization had brought back its flagship international trip to the Jewish state since the start of the corona pandemic.
Momentum, formerly the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, is a global movement that brings Jewish women together so they can connect deeply to their Jewish values and to the State of Israel.
As a new mother myself, I sometimes imagine what I’d do if my family was in danger. And while I’m a mother just like them, these women didn’t need to imagine such a thing – they lived it.
Iris Grinshtein had to flee Ukraine with only one backpack and a single pair of shoes. Another woman was notified by her rabbi that her bus to the border – filled with women and children – would not make a single stop during the 35-hour journey. They were given diapers.
One would expect them to be hardened by the hand life dealt them. Instead, back in their native country and even here, these women immerse themselves in hessed.
Chani Maskevich, for example, runs a makeshift medical supply depot from Israel remotely. A prominent member of the Jewish community in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, Maskevich was always clued in to who was in need and rectified the situation. During the pandemic, she often helped the elderly needing medical attention. Now, she assists her brothers and sisters left behind in a country that was once home.
“They send me videos, texts and pictures,” she laments as we sit on the sidelines of Momentum’s closing gala event. “Sometimes I cry, because it’s often people I know.”
After deeming their home too unsafe to stay, she packed for her family of five and decided a moving target was harder to hit — so they fled. Although men in Ukraine were mandated to stay behind, there was a loophole for men who have three or more children. Maskevich knew her husband technically met that criteria, but wasn’t sure it would actually be enforced.
“I packed a special suitcase just for him,” she confesses. “I was prepared to leave him there.”
The revelation is delivered as a joke, as if we’re just two women commiserating how husbands can be annoying at times, but her eyes belie the levity of her smile. It is clear in that moment how she looked at the border control authorities, when she silently pleaded to escape as a complete family unit.
“I told him I was prepared to leave him there if needed so my kids could get out,” she says. “No child should have to witness a war. I don’t know how people stayed there and I’m grateful we were all able to get out together.”
Meanwhile, while on a bus winding through the Jerusalem Hills, Alina Stepanova from Moscow calmly tells me of the very comfortable life she left behind overnight.
She speaks of her former home in Moscow, where she worked as a psychologist.
“We always wanted to make aliyah, but the timing was never right,” says Stepanova. “The moment the war broke out, I had no doubt that now was the time. Beforehand, I even sensed for many years war was looming. I was very sensitive to how Russian society felt on the street.
“I’ve always helped others, now I’m finding myself as the one being helped,” she adds.
Although busy navigating her new more modest life in Israel since she arrived a little over two months ago, Stepanova is still spending time volunteering and giving private counseling sessions to Ukrainian refugees.
The day took an emotional toll on Stepanova, who despite hearing heartbreaking stories from clients every day, was moved by the resilience and courage of the women she encountered.
“I was in tears most of the day,” she says. “The background to every story is different, but we’re essentially experiencing the same thing. Many of the women lost their homes and had to pack in a similar way and leave quickly. I’m not a refugee, of course, but I know what it’s like to leave when you’re not ready and in less than ideal circumstances.”
While I witnessed a lot of pain that day, I also experienced the epitome of sisterhood. These women all met as strangers. Their native countries are enemies. But on that day, they became sisters.
For Maskevich, she faced a unique dilemma: although she lived in Ukraine most of her life, she was born in Russia.
“I mentally prepared myself [for today] because we need to work hard to overcome hatred,” she says. “I knew there would be women from Russia and also Ukraine. But we’re Jews. Harmony is important for the longevity of our people.”
When we learn about the plight of these refugees in the news, it’s a given that they need shelter, medical supplies, and financial assistance. And in the past few months, Israel has provided those resources to almost 24,000 Ukrainian refugees.
But on that summer day in May, while they shared their stories, took part in a cooking class, toured an art gallery, and capped off the evening singing and dancing with 300 other Jewish women, Momentum gave them something unique and until now, unfulfilled: an opportunity to nourish their need to be heard and know that they’re not alone. ■