Despite recent reports, Jews are not fleeing Ukraine in large numbers, nor is it likely that they will, predicts Alan Gill, the head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian aid organization.
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In his first press interview since taking over as chief executive officer last year, Gill termed “nonsense” reports that Ukrainian Jews were taking flight en masse, in wake of the escalating conflict in their country.
“We’re talking about a few hundred thousand Jews who live there, possibly up to 350,000,” he said. “People do think about leaving, but at the same time, the Jews are staying. This is their home. This is where they’ve been for decades, in some cases centuries. So we’re talking about a complicated situation. Immigration isn’t an easy thing to do, even in a time of great distress. If we look at how many have come to Israel in recent months, they’re small numbers compared with the total population. The fact is that people aren’t leaving in droves. And they could – they could get up and leave today. So it’s time for us to sober up about this and get real.”
A key factor likely to deter Ukrainian Jews from leaving their country, said Gill, is that many are elderly. “You’ve got a huge number of older people among the Jews, and moving an elderly person is traumatic,” he said.
According to Ministry of Immigrant Absorption figures, close to 600 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel in the first quarter of the year – up more than 40 percent compared with the same period last year.
The JDC has intensified its relief efforts in Ukraine since the crisis with Russia erupted in February, providing local Jews with emergency equipment and helping them stockpile necessities. The organization currently has hundreds of staffers on the ground in the country, including members of its affiliated Chesed social welfare centers, as well as relief workers from Israel who have been temporarily relocated to Ukraine. Gill said that since February, the JDC has raised $1.1 million, mainly from the Jewish Federations in the United States, to support these efforts.
Several weeks ago, Gil himself paid a visit to Odessa, where he said: “You could feel the anxiety. It was tremendous.”
To mark the JDC’s centennial, the 150 members of its international board of directors are convening in Israel this week. In a statement, the organization said the meeting was being held in Israel “to emphasize the mutual commitment between the Joint and world Jewry and Israeli society, as well as to demonstrate the importance the Joint attributes to its activities in Israel.”
The JDC, which is today active in 70 countries around the world, has to date invested some NIS 10 billion shekels ($2.87 billion) in projects in Israel.
A 20-year veteran of the JDC, Gill had previously served as chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Columbus, Ohio, before moving with his family to Israel. After assuming his new position, he moved back to New York, where the JDC headquarters are located.
Ukraine is not the only country in the world where Jews are facing difficulties, but at the same time, staying put, he noted.
“Someone recently asked me what’s our rescue plan for the Jews of Hungary,” he recounted. “I told him, it’s called the EU passport. They can get up and simply walk across the border today. 1944 is not 2014, I told him… Jewish community life is very strong during times of distress. The same is true in Greece, and the same is true in Bulgaria, where you’ve got a terrible economic crisis, but the Jewish community there is one of the strongest I’ve seen.”