Benny Haddad, who is the head of The Fellowship’s Aliyah Department, recently returned from a 2.5-month stint in Moldova where he oversaw the immigration of approximately 3,500 Ukrainian Jews to Israel. “They are normal people who led full lives and suddenly, one day, their entire lives were ruined, and they became refugees. I never thought this could happen in 2022,” says Haddad, who is clearly shaken by his experience.
The Fellowship is a remarkable philanthropic enterprise that was founded in 1983 by the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and is now headed by his daughter, Yael Eckstein. Among its many endeavors in Israel and around the world, for the past 30 years the organization has been supporting Jewish populations in need in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and especially in Ukraine. During the current crisis, The Fellowship set up a base in Chisinau (Kishinev), Moldova, where it has welcomed Jewish refugees and organized the swift aliyah of those wishing to resettle in Israel. In the last two months, Haddad and his team arranged 30 flights, bringing thousands of Ukrainian olim to Israel and enabling them to start afresh in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, The Fellowship is continuing to aid the Jews who remain in Ukraine.
“I am proud that The Fellowship is able to play a central role in meeting the current challenges,” says Yael Eckstein. “This operation symbolizes the values of Zionism and solidarity. We are helping ensure that these new olim settle in Israel in an optimal manner. All this was made possible thanks to the partnerships forged among diverse organizations, and the generosity of The Fellowship’s donors, most of whom are Christians and immediately went above and beyond to support these emergency efforts,” she adds emotionally.
Decades of support for Ukraine’s Jewish community
Before the war broke out in February, Ukraine’s Jewish population totaled approximately 200,000 people. For the past 30 years, The Fellowship has been instrumental in helping the community’s neediest members: every year it assists elderly people, many of them Holocaust survivors, as well as vulnerable children and families – providing them with food, medicine and other basic needs. By contributing millions of dollars annually to Jewish organizations operating in Ukraine, The Fellowship has enabled tens of thousands of needy Jews to avoid destitution. In addition, The Fellowship has actively facilitated aliyah for about 150 Ukrainian Jews every month, assisting them financially and logistically with the process of making aliyah and settling in Israel.
Thanks to The Fellowship’s longtime involvement and intimate knowledge of Ukraine’s Jewish community, the organization was well positioned to offer help as soon as the situation on the ground started to deteriorate in late February. As the war started, it quickly became clear that the extreme scenario was playing out: Jews in Kyiv, Kharson, Zaporozhye, Kharkiv and other large Jewish communities were in the middle of a battlefield. They soon started to lack basic staples such as food and medicine, and were unable to obtain cash from the banks. Road closures meant that supplies could not be delivered. People were unable to leave their homes and were desperate to find a way to escape to safety.
As thousands of people tried to flee the country, The Fellowship’s staff helped evacuate homebound elderly people and Holocaust survivors with whom they had been in contact for years. In many cases, buses and emergency shelters were obtained in both Ukraine and Moldova, as well as mattresses, food and warm clothing.
Since The Fellowship had been closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine for many months before the war broke out, it was well prepared to act fast. Days before Russia invaded, an initial grant of $1 million was transferred to various organizations within Ukraine to purchase and store food, medicine, and evacuation equipment such as shelters, buses, sleeping bags and generators. Weeks later, after the invasion began, The Fellowship fast-tracked another grant. By then, thousands of destitute people were arriving at the border crossings with almost nothing, and they needed shelter, food, medicine, and warm clothing. In late March, an additional grant was transferred to help partner organizations assist the tens of thousands of Jewish community members who continue to reside in Ukraine, bringing the total of The Fellowship’s aid to $6.5 million since the crisis began. This is in addition to The Fellowship’s annual support of the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, which totals around $17 million.
Indeed, thanks to the close collaboration with partner organizations in the field and in Israel, The Fellowship was able to provide almost immediate support to large numbers of people. The logistics were coordinated with the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Absorption Ministry, the Diaspora Ministry, and other partners. Early on, a decision was made that The Fellowship would be in charge of assisting Jewish refugees arriving in Moldova while the Jewish Agency would handle those in Poland.
In collaboration with the organizations Latet, JDC, and FJC, The Fellowship organized seven special flights from Israel to the Ukrainian border in Moldova that brought 95 tons of humanitarian aid to the refugees, including food, medicine, blankets, hygiene items, and other basic necessities. Before Passover, these flights also included kosher-for-Passover food and dozens of tons of matzot.
One of Haddad’s main challenges was securing enough beds for the refugees in temporary shelters, which he achieved with the help of the local community and local partners. As soon as they crossed the border into Moldova, Jews fleeing Ukraine received not only a place to sleep but also hot meals and medical assistance. At the height of the crisis, 1,400 beds were available for Jewish refugees. “The first wave was mostly young families, women and children, who came with few belongings and didn’t know where to go. Later, older people arrived too,” Haddad recalls.
As soon as Ukrainian Jews realized that they were no longer safe, interest in making aliyah soared. When the war broke out, The Fellowship opened an aliyah office in the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau. In addition, Haddad and his team supplied information about the aliyah process, including registration for flights and options once they arrive in Israel, through a hot line and also in person. “The refugees were very scared and anxious. We provided a lot of information through our hot line, even at night. It helped them to know what is happening and what to expect.”
Some of the Jews who crossed the border into Moldova preferred to continue to a European country such as Germany. Those interested in making aliyah were offered temporary shelter and were directed to Nativ, the Israeli government entity tasked with verifying aliyah eligibility in the FSU, in order for their documents to be checked. “Over 90% were found to be eligible,” notes Haddad.
The first aliyah flight from Moldova chartered by The Fellowship in partnership with the Jewish Agency took place on March 6. For the following two weeks, a flight took off from Chisinau every day with 150 Ukrainian refugees on board – a veritable airlift. Once the massive influx of refugees eased, the number of aliyah flights was reduced to twice a week and then once a week. In addition to these large planes, Haddad also helped organize special smaller flights for people who required medical attention, including elderly refugees. Furthermore, working hand in hand with a host of partner organizations, The Fellowship has been actively helping with the absorption process of the new immigrants after their arrival in Israel.
A harrowing journey
Haddad is still overwhelmed by the many heart-rending accounts he heard from Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. The Polunova family and Vera Chemrat are just two stories among many. On March 12, a bomb fell near the Polunovas’ home in Mariupol, Ukraine, shattering windows and doors. There had already been no electricity, communication, water or gas for a long time. After spending an unbearable week in the basement without much food, Tetiana, 74, her daughter Liyudmyla, 48, and 16-year-old grandson Andreii were able to escape from the war-torn city. The trip to a nearby town took about 11 hours instead of half an hour. Eventually, they reached Chisinau, Moldova.
After meeting with volunteers from The Fellowship, the Polunovas were certain that they wanted to continue their journey to Israel and settle there. “I just want a future for my son,” says Liyudmyla. “We hope that this trip to Israel will bring us a peaceful life where everyone is safe and healthy.”
“Of course, it's hard to move to a new country. All of my friends stayed in Ukraine, and I didn't even have time to say goodbye. However, I think everything will be fine in Israel. At least there will be peace here," says Andreii, who is staying with his family at a shelter run by The Fellowship. Grandmother Tetiana also hopes for peace and tranquility: “I think Israel is our salvation. We are so grateful to The Fellowship for all that they have done for us.”
For Vera Chemrat, who is 84 and from Kharkiv, Ukraine, it was the second time in her life that she had to be evacuated from a war zone. The first time traumatized her for years; it was in 1941, when she was three years old. She and her mother fled to Siberia, where they survived the war, but most of her family was killed by the Nazis.
“This time, at first I didn’t want to leave Ukraine. I am too old for such adventures. Then I understood that my daughter and grandson were staying in Kharkiv because of me. I didn’t want them to stay. I want my children to have a happy future. So, now we are here, on our way to Israel,” Vera said when she reached Moldova. “Today’s situation reminds me of my childhood because once again we must leave everything behind and run away,” she added. “When this war began on February 24, it was very scary. We heard bombs all the time. In the last few days, we didn’t have electricity, heat or water. We only had a few bottles of mineral water that we had saved.”
Vera says that this time Ukrainian Jews are lucky that they can escape to Israel. She has never before been abroad and is very grateful to The Fellowship for encouraging her to come to Israel and for giving her family hope.