It started with two chairs.
It was the first lecture of the Jewish educational program for the group of 20-and 30-something professionals from the former Soviet Union, getting them acquainted with Israel.
In the room in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, Kirill Levin, 24, from Saint Petersburg, eyed Oleksandra (Sasha) Manuilovych, 26, from Kyiv, and made his strategic move: he brought her two yellow and blue chairs—the colors of the flag of Ukraine.
The two had both arrived in Israel on life-changing, roundabout journeys—one fleeing Russia and the other war-torn Ukraine—only to find themselves facing each other in the same classroom on the Masa Israel Journey program.
“When I traveled here I thought I wouldn’t speak with Russians or have any contact with them—unless maybe I will have to talk to them—and then on the first lecture he came and brought me the two chairs,” Manuilovych recalled.
“It’s funny in our first meeting I brought her the two chairs because I liked her,” Levin said.
“He was very loud,” Manuilovych recalled. (“It’s true,” Levin said.) She put on her headphones to try to create a barrier between them. “I didn’t like him at all,” she said.
Journey to Israel
Like most of the young professionals in the program, neither had been involved in Jewish life or had any connection to Israel.
“I knew I had Jewish roots because of my last name but I never thought about visiting Israel,” Levin said. “I lived my life in Russia as a usual kid with sports and hobbies.”
Manuilovych recounted, “I knew about my Jewish roots from childhood but I never knew about Judaism.”
Judaism and Israel were far from their thoughts; the Jewish holidays were not on their calendars.
Starting at the age of four, and for the next 14 years, Levin was active in Taekwondo, becoming a two-time champion of Russia, European champion and vice world champion, all in the juniors.
He stopped competing at 18 due to a back injury and a lack of state funding for the sport.
“I never thought about my belonging to the Jewish people, and was far from Judaism,” Levin said.
Then a friend who had been to Israel with Taglit Birthright told him about the program that provides free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews. Levin was ready to check it out but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed his plans. He was determined to go at the first opportunity.
Manuilovych and a friend from Ukraine come to Israel on Taglit Birthright just before the pandemic broke out.
“During those 10 days I fell in love with Israel completely,” she said.
Then the war came
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022 set the cards in motion.
Levin almost immediately left Russia for Turkey, from where he finally made it to Israel with the Taglit Birthright program. He went back home to surprise his mom for her birthday only to leave the country at once, without seeing her, as mobilization was announced. He exited Russia the cheapest way possible, via Uzbekistan, finding work in a transport company as a logistician during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar before coming to Israel with Masa this year.
Meanwhile, Manuilovych, who had planned to return to Israel with Masa, stayed in Kyiv with her physician mother. As the war dragged on into its second year and became less intense in Kyiv, she decided to go to Israel on the Masa program with her friend from Taglit, leaving her three dogs in the care of her mom.
In Israel again
Hearing Levin’s story, Manuilovych was affected by the fact that he and had tried to escape the war as soon as it started and did not wait for the mobilization to begin. She was moved when he recounted how he traveled to see his mother but could not stay because of the mobilization.
“Then I began to think maybe this guy is not pretentious and maybe there is something there,” she recounted.
The classmates quickly became close friends.
Now inseparable, they will finish their Masa program in the fall and are planning their future together, with Israel as their home base.
Do you see your future here together, the couple was asked as they held hands throughout their sit-down interview. “Yeah,” he said. Of course,” she responded.
Outreach to the unaffiliated
Since its founding in 2004, Masa has provided long-term educational programs to about 200,000 young people from more than 60 countries, aimed at immersing Diaspora Jews into Israeli society.
This year a record-breaking 2,500 Russian-speaking participants are on the program, up from 1,800 last year, a group spokesperson said.
The participants from the former Soviet Union make up about 20% of this year’s attendees and have a whopping post-program aliyah rate of 90%.
“We have about six months to connect them with the State of Israel,” said Reuven Greenberg, director of Russian-speaking programs at Masa. “Once you make aliyah you have less time to deal with identity because you are dealing with survival.”
An add-on to the general months-long program dubbed “Masa ID,” and newly expanded for all FSU participants with the cooperation of the Harry Oscar Triguboff Institute, serves as a supplement for the newly arrived Russian-speaking Jewish participants who are less connected to Israel and to their Jewish identity.
“Even before the war in Ukraine, the vast majority of [Russian speaking] Masa programs graduates eventually made Aliyah,” said Shalom Norman, CEO of the Triguboff Institute.
“Our goal is to equip them with tools that are helpful in the absorption process and to acquaint them in a solid way with their Jewish roots and the multi-dimensional Jewish Peoplehood.”