Since the early hours of the morning Thursday, the Jewish Agency has been “flooded “with requests from Jews trying to flee Ukraine for Israel, sources told Haaretz. In most cases, these are individuals who have completed their aliyah applications but have yet to receive their immigration visas.
The Jewish Agency offices in Jerusalem have also been inundated with calls from soldiers serving in the Israeli army who immigrated on their own to Israel but whose parents and siblings are still in Ukraine. According to the sources, the soldiers have been begging for the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel to help arrange emergency flights out for their parents.
Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning, the Jewish Agency had seen no evidence of Jews trying to get out of the country as a result of the Russian threat.
Individuals applying to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return must be able to prove that they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Because the process requires considerable documentation, it can be tedious and take several months. In light of the emergency situation, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency are discussing introducing shortcuts to the process that would enable Jews to leave Ukraine more quickly.
The Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews set up a special hotline on Thursday to answer questions from Jews in Ukraine seeking to leave the country for Israel as well as for their relatives in Israel. About 85 percent of immigration from Ukraine in recent years has been handled through the Fellowship – a philanthropic organization that raises funds from evangelical Christians.
On Sunday, two flights arrived in Israel from Ukraine – one from Kyiv and the other from Odessa – bringing a total of nearly 100 immigrants to Israel. The flights were paid for by the Fellowship and the Jewish Agency. These were the last immigrants from Ukraine to arrive in Israel before the Russian invasion.
The Fellowship had planned to bring another 160 immigrants to Israel on two flights scheduled for mid-March. It is now looking into the possibility of bringing them earlier because of the emergency situation. With Ukraine’s airspace closed, at this point all those seeking to leave will have to be transported by land to neighboring countries before they can fly to Israel.
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An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Only about a quarter of them are considered halakhically Jewish – that is, the children of Jewish mothers.
Addressing the new situation on the ground on Thursday, Israeli Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said, “We are ready to accept thousands of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.”
Sixteen Ukrainians participating in a trip sponsored by Birthright, the organization that brings young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel, found themselves stranded in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning not knowing when they would be able to fly back home.
Lola Koktysh, a member of the group, said she had been in touch with relatives in Ukraine since the morning trying to obtain accurate information about what was happening on the ground. “I am very nervous for my friends, colleagues and family,” said the 28-year-old resident of Kyiv, who works as a marketing manager for a software company. Most of the members of her Birthright group were in their late twenties – older than average – and some had left behind children in Ukraine, she said.
“We are monitoring the situation, and hopefully, we will be able to get back home in a few days,” she said. “This is very stressful for all of us.”
The group members had been scheduled to fly out of Ben-Gurion International Airport on Thursday morning after completing their 10-day trip. A spokesman for Birthright said they would be put at a hotel in Bat Yam, a city south of Tel Aviv, until they were able to fly back, and the organization would foot the bill.
In the pre-pandemic era, Birthright brought on average 5,000 participants a year from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on its Israel trips. These trips resumed several weeks ago, after a long break due to COVID-19.
When asked whether the organization hadn’t taken into account that the group might be stranded, considering the situation in their home country, the Birthright spokesman said: “Of course, we take such things into account, but 10 days ago, when we brought them here, it wasn’t clear that there would be a war so soon.”
Before Birthright had offered the group free hotel accommodations for the rest of their stay, an organization of social activists in Tel Aviv had published a post on its Facebook page asking locals to host the Ukrainians for Shabbat. A representative of the group said they had received “hundreds of phone calls” in response.