David Ben-Gurion famously said, “In order to be a realist in the State of Israel, one must believe in miracles.” Looking back on the year 2022, it is not difficult to find reasons for pessimism. This was a year marked by ferocious antisemitism on social media and in the public square. It was so intense that it necessitated condemnation from the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, the rift between Israel and American Jews appears to be growing, with divisive issues looming on the agenda for 2023.
Yet when the history of 2022 is written, I suspect that its first few chapters will be about something else. Regardless of all the challenges we face, 2022 was the year that Israel and the global Jewish community accomplished miracles together, and every single one of us should take at least a moment to reflect on that fact with pride.
Although we are still tabulating exact 2022 numbers at the Jewish Agency for Israel, it is certain that nearly 70,000 Jews made Israel their home over the past year—more than double the number from 2021 and the highest amount of olim in 23 years. Over one in six of them came from Ukraine due to the ongoing war, in which their very lives hung in the balance.
Take a moment to consider the enormity of this development. Many are haunted not only by the horrors of the Holocaust, but by the sad and uncontested fact that American Jews were unable to save their fellow Jews from it. As the years marched on and other wars and atrocities occurred, it was not illogical to ask the question of whether we had learned the lessons of the past.
Make no mistake about it, 2022 was not 1939, and the war in Ukraine—as horrific as it may be—is not the Holocaust in any way, shape or form. That said, in 2022, Jews once again found themselves fleeing war. Cities like Kyiv and Odessa, to which many American Jews trace our roots, shook as rockets hit. Millions of people found themselves without homes. This was a crisis unknown in most of our lifetimes, involving a nation with a significant and strong Jewish community.
And we responded. With indispensable and immediate support from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and other global partners, the Jewish Agency deployed hundreds of staff members, Israeli emissaries and volunteers to rescue Ukraine’s Jews. A total of 465 buses were deployed, taking over 11,000 Jews to the borders with Poland, Hungary and Moldova. More than 290,000 meals as well as 354 tons of clothing and toiletries were given out at our refugee center, where entire floors of hotels were rented out to give shelter to our fellow Jews.
I will never forget my trip to Poland one month after the conflict began, on a mission organized by JFNA. We heard from Bella, who survived the Nazi bombing of Odessa as a child and now once again found herself a refugee. We saw staff members at the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee finishing each other’s sentences as they briefed our group—demonstrating our strong relationship. At the border, as a steady stream of refugees sadly trudged into the country, the first thing they saw was the Israeli flag at the Jewish Agency booth. It was impossible not to be seized by the thought that being a Jew in Ukraine has historically meant many things, but on that day and the whole of 2022, it meant that you had a nation in Israel and co-religionists around the world who cared about you.
In many ways, this work is only beginning. Moving to a new country and leaving behind your family is not easy, and there will be many hardships along the way. Nor should we, the American Jewish community, be expected to ignore the other very real and daunting challenges we face.
Yet we must never forget how we met this moment in history. The American Jewish community and the Israeli government, Orthodox and Reform groups and different Jewish organizations that compete for financial resources—every one of them worked together with a single-minded devotion to the goal of saving lives. Together, we embodied the Talmudic saying that all Jews are responsible for one another.
And, if need be, we will do it again.
Dan Elbaum is head of North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.