The journey of Ukraine’s embattled Jews to Israel

Eastern Ukrainian Jews escape war and return to their roots with Israel’s Shorashim organization.

ISRAELI REPRESENTATIVES including Rabbi David Stav visit the Jewish Agency refugee camp in Ukraine. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
ISRAELI REPRESENTATIVES including Rabbi David Stav visit the Jewish Agency refugee camp in Ukraine.
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
KIEV – Last week, a group of young Ukrainian Jews sat at Kiev’s Galitsky Synagogue to hear Rabbi David Stav address their questions as they pondered making aliya.
Stav, the chief rabbi of Shoham in central Israel and head of the Tzohar rabbinical association, spent three days in Ukraine, visiting local synagogues and Jewish centers to get an up-close account of Jewish life in the former Soviet country.
One of the attendees at his address was Mikhail Tkach, 37, of Kiev. He told the Magazine that he wants to make aliya as soon as possible. “I just got confirmation from the Israeli consul that I have the right to make aliya. I want my 10-year-old son to have a better future sooner rather than later,” he said in good English.
“For my parents, the decision to join us in Israel is tough,” continued Tkach.
His parents come from Donetsk, one of the most heavily hit cities in the eastern Ukraine during the current civil war between Russian separatist fighters and Ukrainian nationals.
“They recently fled to Kiev to escape the rockets and had to leave everything behind. They are both 61 and retired teachers, but because of the situation they have gone back to work to be able to pay for their flat in Kiev. My sister and I help them out, too.”
Tkach is the last generation in his family who will be able to make aliya, as his grandfather was Jewish. “I have military documents that state my grandfather was a Jew. He was also a partisan fighter during WWII,” explained Tkach, an entrepreneur who works in international trade.
He already has a married sister living in Beersheba, working as a doctor in the city’s Soroka University Medical Center.
Stav believes it is essential to help out immigrants like Tkach before their aliya and acclimation to Israel. “Our goal is to help those who plan to make aliya to Israel here in the Ukraine first,” Stav detailed. “Down the road, they will face huge bureaucratic challenges in Israel if they arrive without the correct documents and paperwork tracing their Jewish family roots.”
INDEED, 70 YEARS of Communist repression left countless Ukrainian Jews disconnected from their Jewish heritage and tradition, while intermarriage also left its mark. Even studying Hebrew was prohibited during the Soviet regime.
The Galitsky Synagogue, where the talk with Stav took place, perhaps best illustrates the punishing experience of Jewish life under the Soviet regime. The synagogue, built in 1910, remained under Jewish ownership until 1919, the year when the Soviet Union nationalized all assets of religious institutions in its goal to eliminate all religion. In 1930, Galitsky was completely closed down by the Soviet regime, converted to a dining hall for employees from a local Communist factory. In 2001, the building was finally returned to the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine by a decree of the country’s government.
Today the building houses the synagogue, a Bnei Akiva office and a center for the Midrasha Tzionit, an educational center for Jewish and Zionistic learning headed by Elisha Henkin that includes programs about the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and Torah learning for Ukrainian Jews.
“This is a national mission to strengthen Jewish identity among our people,” averred Stav.
The Israeli government addressed the unique situation of post-Soviet Jewry by amending the 1950 Law of Return that cemented the right of all Jews to immigrate, which originally maintained that Jews who could make aliya had to be Jewish according to maternal lineage, following Halacha or through conversion.
Decades of Communist persecution against Soviet Jewry led Israeli lawmakers to amend the Law of Return in 1970. The amended law now granted automatic Israeli citizenship to those whose fathers or grandfathers were Jewish, or who were married to Jews, or whose spouse was a child or grandchild of a Jew. The new amendment ensured that families would not be broken apart when making aliya because of non-Jewish members, and also provided a haven in Israel for non-Jews persecuted because of their Jewish roots.
A mass immigration of Soviet Jews took place in the 1970s after the Soviet Union lifted its emigration ban, and continued throughout the ’80s and after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. To date, about 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have come to Israel.
Last year, nearly 6,000 Ukrainian Jews made aliya; Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, himself originally from Donetsk, has said he expects a 400-percent increase in aliya from Ukraine by the end of the year.
“I’m going to Israel for my son’s future,” declared Tkach. “He needs me to go and I hope my parents will be able to join.”
“All they want to is to play with their grandchildren and leave the war behind, but moving to Israel is a big risk for them. They’re not risk-takers like me,” he added with a smile, confident he will be able to develop his business in the Jewish state because of its “stable economy and GDP.”
WHILE TKACH’S documentation and proof of his Jewish lineage have been approved, problems for new immigrants like him usually arise later on – because the Chief Rabbinate and Interior Ministry cannot consider these immigrants Jewish according to Halacha. With life events like weddings, which are under the Chief Rabbinate, some very difficult situations can take place.
For Stav, any proper documentation in verifying Jewish ancestry is a critical factor for making aliya and for the applicant’s future life in Israel.
Indeed, the central purpose in Stav’s visit to Ukraine is Tzohar’s Shorashim initiative, to aid Jews in proving their Jewish ancestry. Established together with the Triguboff Institute, Shorashim (Hebrew for “roots”) has offices in both Kiev and Moscow. The institute was founded by Harry Triguboff, an Australian Jewish billionaire, who is investing millions of dollars to help FSU Jews gain legal recognition as Jews in Israel through conversion or historical documentation.
Stav, together with director-general Shalom Norman of the Triguboff Institute, and Ori Shechter, the recently appointed director of Shorashim, traveled to Dnepropetrovsk to inaugurate the new Shorashim office on June 25. The new branch will aid Ukrainian Jews in establishing their status as Jews upon arrival in Israel, by clarifying their status in Ukraine during their preliminary stages preparing for aliya. Until now, new immigrants would often arrive in Israel without any of the necessary documentation, and would have a much more onerous time accessing the required documents away from Ukraine.
In addition, the office will assist “non-halachic” Jews in exploring alternative options that will enable them to shorten the procedure to join the Jewish collective when they arrive in Israel.
Shorashim’s man on the ground who uncovers forgotten or overlooked documents necessary for establishing Jewish status is Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Gaissinovitch, aided by Jewish lawyer Gershon Beloritsky.
They are responsible for completing applicants’ files in Ukraine that show the applicant is Jewish through background research on their grandparents, and verifying and copying records.
“We send the file onwards to Israel for final approval from the beit din [religious court],” noted Gaissinovitch, a Chabad emissary who is a medical doctor and mohel and has performed thousands of circumcisions in Ukraine and the region.
“Our research can stretch far back. For example, we have a ketuba [marriage contract] that dates back to 1890,” he points out. “Almost 99% of our files are approved by the beit din in Israel because the investigative work done here in Ukraine is so thorough and reliable.”
ABOUT 63,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which was home to 1.5 million Jews before the Holocaust, when 900,000 were murdered. The Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Chabadnik Shmuel Kaminetzky, told the Magazine that he believes that there are around 300,000 unidentified Jews in Ukraine.
Dimitry “Dima” Arutiunov, 23, believes Shorashim has been very helpful to those interested in making aliya from Kiev. “People get really frustrated about finding their documentation and knowing exactly what to look for to prove their Jewish roots – sometimes they give up on aliya altogether,” he asserted. “To know that an initiative like Shorashim exists to help us out and provide advice is so important.”
Arutiunov, who studied ecology in university in Kiev, will participate in the short-term work program MASA in Eilat this year. “I’m very excited about it and I want to stay in Israel after the program ends. Meeting Rabbi Stav and learning more about Shorashim has given me very useful information.”
His friend Regina Ravikovich agrees, but is hesitant about making aliya immediately.
“My parents are both Jewish, so there is no problem with documents.
But my family all lives here in Kiev, so it’s a hard decision for me; I see my future in Israel but I don’t know when that will be yet.”
Ravikovich, 24, is an accountant who also spent a year in Israel on a MASA program. “It was fantastic to live in Israel,” she enthused. “Even during the war last summer, I saw that in Israel we are all one family and that I could deal with the situation.
“Now all I need to do is to study more Hebrew, and maybe I will be able to complete my master’s there.”
But for other Jews, especially those coming from eastern Ukraine, the opportunity to make aliya cannot come fast enough.
NEAR DNEPROPETROVSK, around 240 kilometers away from the fighting in eastern Ukraine, a refugee camp has been set up by the Jewish Agency along the Dnieper River. Dozens of Jewish families have sought refuge at the Mayak center, awaiting the opportunity to make aliya.
Last year, more than 800 people came through the center, most of them from the city of Donetsk. “We average around 40 people per month, but sometimes up to 130 per month,” Maxim Lurye told the Magazine.
The Ukrainian government does not recognize the citizens fleeing eastern Ukraine as war refugees. Instead, they are referred to as internally displaced persons and receive no government support, according to Lurye.
Victoria and Yuri Pak of Donetsk, once active members of the Jewish community there, have spent the past couple of months in Mayak waiting for other family members to join them so they can make aliya together. The couple saw their neighbor’s home destroyed by three missile attacks, a tipping point in their decision to leave.
“We decided half a year ago, after wandering across Ukraine – a country that was once our home – that we have nothing more left here,” recalled Victoria. “My daughter has been to three different schools this past year because of the war.”
Husband Yuri was ready to make aliya much earlier, as the civil war began in mid-2014 – but Victoria, a language teacher for 20 years in Donetsk, was not ready to go. “I thought maybe we could find work in the west, I still had hope that things might change. But even with our education and skills, no one in western Ukraine would hire us,” she remembered.
In any case, Yuri sent Victoria and their daughter, Alika, to Israel last summer to check out the country. “At the counter in the Kiev airport, they couldn’t believe we were going to Israel; they asked us, why would you travel to a war zone? We told them that we are from Donetsk – and no more questions were asked,” Victoria recounted.
“During that visit, we saw how much Israel cares for her citizens during a war – unlike Ukraine, where we had to take care of ourselves. It was very special to see how IDF soldiers were highly regarded and appreciated by everyone.”
“I hope Israel accepts me and I will accept Israel,” said Alika, 14. “I hope that life will be much better there.” When asked what she knows about the Jewish state, Alika replied: “I know people are patriotic, and that you can study anything you want.”
The Triguboff Institute’s Norman emphasized that integrating into Israel is not easy for anyone; the director-general made aliya in 1957 at the age of five, coming over from the Vilna province of Belarus.
“There were challenges; I remember that when the kids at school laughed at my Russian name, Sasha, I asked my dad to give me a Hebrew one. But I merited to do well in my life, and I know that each of these new immigrants will also have the opportunity to do so.”
For Stav, his work with Ukraine’s Jews also comes from a personal place. His mother’s family was originally from Zvhil, Ukraine (today Novohrad-Volynskyi ), and 10 years ago he took a trip with her, exploring their family roots there.
“We see in the story of the Ukrainian Jewish people and their return to the Jewish state, the fulfillment of the prophecy that all the exiles of Israel will return to Zion,” affirmed Stav. “But as they journey back to our people, we have to reconnect them to their Jewish identity in the best and most considerate way possible.
“And that is a mission that we can only do together.”