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In Ukraine, Jewish Agency for Israel staff have been busy evacuating displaced people, providing aid and facilitating Aliyah, all while continuing their regular Jewish educational programming throughout the country

Amos Kamil and Sarah Bronson
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In the spring of 2014, when Oksana and Viktor Davidov* strolled near Luhansk City Hall in eastern Ukraine with their two small daughters, missiles started falling nearby, as the violent conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists interrupted their walk.

Model Seder at the Jewish Agency’s center for displaced Jews in Dnepropetrovsk

It was an inexplicable horror, Oksana said. Explosions, screaming, dead bodies . . . Our older girl was hysterical. She couldnt stop crying and asking us to explain what was happening. How can you explain to a child why an old lady is on the ground, covered in blood, with her legs missing?

The family soon fled town, enduring dangerous checkpoints along the way. Once they made it to Kiev, they were greeted with neglect and contempt, they said. We became homeless, with no work, no belongings – we left everything behind, and started again from scratch, Oksana said. Even more devastating was that, having learned were from Luhansk, people in Kiev wouldnt talk to us. No one helped us except the Jewish Agency.

Folkdancing at an Israeli Independence Day party at a Jewish Agency center near Kiev

Surge in Aliyah

The Davidovs story is not unique. The United Nations estimates that, as of August 2015, more than 7,800 people have died in the ongoing conflict, which has displaced more than a million people. The fighting has had a deep impact on all Ukrainians, including the 200,000 Jews and their family members who are eligible for Aliyah. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which already had an active, long-standing presence in Ukraine, was able to swiftly aid the Ukrainian Jewish community. In the spring of 2014, the Jewish Agency created a 24-hour hotline for Ukrainian Jews, reaching out to those eligible for Aliyah to find out who needed help. In the first half of 2015 alone, 16,850 Ukrainian Jews participated in Aliyah information events.

To meet the demand, Jewish Agency staff in Ukraine and Israel worked around the clock to assess needs, provide support and information, and coordinate volunteer efforts to pluck families from danger and bring them to the nearest safe Jewish Agency center.  The Jewish Agency also set up a center for displaced persons near Dnepropetrovsk, where Jews receive housing and Hebrew lessons while they await their Aliyah visas.

In total, 5,917 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel in 2014, nearly three times as many as in the previous year. The increase from eastern Ukraine, in particular, was even higher: for example, more than 1,550 immigrants arrived from Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, compared to 150 in 2013.

And the growth in Aliyah continues, with more than 4,865 Ukrainian immigrants having arrived in Israel during the first eight months of 2015, a 50% increase from the same period in 2014.

Helping with the absorption process

For many, like the Davidovs, the choice to move to Israel was made in haste. We werent planning to leave our country, Oksana said from their new home near Haifa. We had higher-education degrees, stable jobs, and a settled way of life. But the situation made us decide to make Aliyah.

The Rybalko family, too, lived comfortably in Luhansk. They were making plans for a beach vacation when their town was shelled. Konstantin, Julia, and 10-year-old Valeria hid in their basement for days, with no electricity or phone connection, and diminishing stores of food and water. At the same time, Konstantins father, who had cancer, suffered from lack of medical care and painkillers, and died at the end of July. During his funeral, artillery shells exploded in the cemetery.

Soon after, the Rybalkos reached Kiev, where, like the Davidovs, they received Jewish Agency assistance to plan their Aliyah. In December, they moved into the Agencys Kiryat Yam Absorption Center in northern Israel, where Konstantin, a dentist, joined a vocational program for health professionals.

Several hundred Ukrainian immigrants reside in Jewish Agency absorption centers around Israel, learning Hebrew and preparing to join the Israeli work force. Others take advantage of the Agencys connections with municipal agencies to receive temporary housing.

Many arrive in Israel in a state of severe trauma. We lost everything, Konstantin said. A family member, our jobs, our home. We did not know how to go on living. We dont know what would have happened without the Jewish Agencys absorption programs. Thanks to that, we feel we have a future here in Israel.

Jewish education and community in Ukraine

While it facilitates the increasing Ukrainian Aliyah, The Jewish Agency also continues to serve those who stay behind. As it became clear that the situation there would remain unstable, the Jewish Agency allocated, in 2014 alone, $430,000 for security measures such as cameras, bullet-proof windows and the like, to help ensure it is safe to pray at synagogues, learn at Jewish schools, and celebrate Jewish holidays as a community.

The Agencys educational services continue to connect Jewish Ukrainians with Jewish heritage and Israel, and to provide feelings of routine, normalcy and community for those living in fear. During the current school year, more than 4,040 pupils are studying at 18 Jewish day schools in Ukraine that receive support from the Agency and from Israels Ministry of Education. The struggling staff in Donetsk continues to educate the 35 children still there, though most of the faculty and students have fled.

In 2015, more than 2,000 Ukrainian children attended Jewish Agency overnight camps and day camps during their school vacations, and 358 attended Jewish Agency Sunday schools. More than 1,200 participated in Israel Experiences such as Masa and Birthright, and 1,600 adults studied in Jewish Agency ulpanim as interest in learning Hebrew surges – an indication of both increasing Jewish identity and interest in Aliyah.

The Jewish Agency is proud to fulfill its historic mission of facilitating Aliyah, said Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. Integrating immigrants from Ukraine into Israeli society is a mission of critical importance, as is strengthening Jewish identity and community in Ukraine. We will continue to support Ukrainian Jewry in the coming years, both those who choose to make Aliyah and those who remain in Ukraine.             

*The Davidovs names were changed to protect their privacy. Amishai Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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