“I see Israel!” Sergei exulted in Russian as the plane flew over the Mediterranean toward the looming beaches of the Jewish state. The chartered flight, with its 93 Ukrainian Jewish refugees on board, was made possible by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and landed in Israel last Wednesday. The group joined more than 15,000 people who have already made aliyah since Russia launched a war against Ukraine almost exactly one year ago.
Among the passengers on the flight were three members of the Pumreykov family; Sergei, 41, Ludmilla, 36, and their daughter Ksenia, 8. Sergei describes the past year as a “living hell.”
“The most common sound we would hear was the air-raid siren. We lived on the 10th floor of our building and every time the siren wailed, I’d grab my wife and daughter and run as fast as possible down the stairs to the basement shelter. I would encourage Ksenia by saying it was a game to see who could get there fastest. It was terrifying. There were constant power outages and we were sitting for hours in the cold and dark. We realized we couldn’t live like that anymore,” he said.
On the tarmac after landing, Alexander, 35, who came with his young family all the way from Moscow, told JNS he looks forward to a bright future in Haifa. Alex, 33, from Odessa, said he was happy to be making aliyah and joining his friends and family in Israel. Oksana from Kyiv declined to give her age, but said she was excited to be in Israel. Vlad, 24, also from Kyiv, said he looked forward to a new life with new possibilities, and to reuniting with his girlfriend, friends and family after having lived a Jewish life in Ukraine.
“This latest flight of 90 new Israelis comes after a year of war and bloodshed in which we have been able to assist over 5,000 people to flee that carnage,” said Yael Eckstein, president of IFCJ. “Together with our partners in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency, and others, we view it as a source of immeasurable pride to be able to give these special individuals and families the promise of new lives of safety, security, and hope in the Jewish homeland.”
But back in Ukraine, thousands of Jews remain, unwilling or unable to leave. While the majority of the refugee immigrants arrived in Israel in the early months of the conflict after fleeing westward into Poland and Moldova, recent efforts by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and partner agencies have focused on helping those who chose to stay behind or were later forced out of their homes by the fighting.
In Odessa, Chabad has been busy assisting residents since the start of the war. The organization has provided approximately 7,000 families, including the 187 Holocaust survivors left in Odessa, with boxes of provisions each month, funded by IFCJ. Before the war, there were 50,000 Jews living in Odessa. Today, there are approximately 20,000.
Rabbi Avraham Wolff, Chief Rabbi of Odessa, explained to JNS the supreme efforts his staff has made over the last year to assist as many people as possible amid the utter chaos, destruction and death the war has wreaked upon the city. And with the city’s energy grid partially destroyed after several attacks by Russian strikes and kamikaze drones, residents are forced to spend their days in near-darkness and without heat. Thousands of Odessan Jews, many of whom are elderly, require continued assistance and care, and Rabbi Wolff’s Chabad center, along with IFCJ, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other organizations, have stepped up efforts to ensure people receive food, warm blankets and an encouraging word.
Rabbi Wolff explained to JNS that until Feb. 23, 2022, the Chabad Jewish community had 1,000 students in three kindergartens, three elementary schools, a Jewish university, and a kollel.
“On Feb. 24, everything fell apart at once,” he said. “People lost their livelihoods and the ability to live on their own. If we were not providing them with food packages together with IFCJ, they would die, one after another. These food packages are the absolute basic necessity that is keeping them alive.”
At the nearby old-age home, Rabbi Wolff introduced a number of its residents, explaining that while many of the children and young adults were able to leave Ukraine to safety, the elderly were unable or unwilling to leave. He explained to JNS that only a few elderly residents die each year in general, but in the past year alone, 19 people died due to what he said were the anxieties and pressures caused by the war.
The building was powered by a diesel generator, so the residents had light and heat. Maria, 87, was so glad to be cared for in a warm and comfortable environment, she described her stay at the home as “a vacation.” Vyecheslav, 84, from Donetsk, is old and blind but displayed youthful energy as he sat in his bed and leaned on his walker for support. He had been at the old-age home for two years and appeared unfazed by the war taking place around him. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said, smiling and with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Rabbi Wolff noted that while organizations tend to compete against each other to assist those in need, the war brought these organizations together and they have worked in conjunction to ensure that aid gets delivered quickly and efficiently.
In Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian city with 500,000 residents just north of the Black Sea and northeast of Odessa, 100,000 people escaped at the beginning of the war, but many are returning. At the same time, 4,000 Jews survive day-to-day in Mykolaiv, and thanks to the local Chabad and IFCJ, these Jews (as well as some non-Jews) receive much-needed provisions.
Chabad Rabbi Shalom Gotliv, who has led the Mykolaiv community for 26 years, described to JNS the difficulties the community experienced when the war first broke out and Mykolaiv came under direct attack. “Many families came to us for help. We went to their homes to understand their needs and provided blankets, food, heaters and more,” he said.
“When we brought in buses to take families westward, we witnessed terrible scenes as families were forced to break up temporarily,” he added. Many husbands were unable to leave due to the nationwide exit ban for men between the ages of 18 to 60.
He said there were periods without access to any water, and people would stand outside with buckets to collect rainwater. “Nowadays, we are not experiencing such difficulties and trucks arrive with water and distribute it to the citizens.”
Rabbi Gotliv emphasized that while he and his staff provide food and basic necessities such as coats and blankets to Mykolaiv’s Jewish residents with the assistance of IFCJ and others, it isn’t necessarily the food the residents come for.
“Those who have left are still in touch with us,” he said. “The connection is strong and soul-deep. This is a very poor area, and every Thursday and Friday we bake 1,000 challot and provide them, along with grape juice. But they don’t need the challah, necessarily. It’s the Shabbat, the joint uplifting with the community, the presence here at Chabad that they so crave.”
Rabbi Gotliv said he and his wife visit people in their homes just so that they feel they belong to a community. “People live here and have a full and meaningful life,” he said. “It is simple and quiet in general and it gives them a sense of security to know there is a Jewish community and a synagogue here.”
One case in point is Eli ben Mendelssohn Holstein, 75, whose house was hit by shrapnel when a Russian missile landed nearby. He lives alone, though he has a daughter who lives nearby, and he is content with his life in the city. He is assisted by Chabad, the JDC and IFCJ, and after the missile strike blew out some of his windows, IFCJ paid to have new windows installed. Meanwhile, he plans to wait out the war in Mykolaiv.
Back on the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac, Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ofir Sofer welcomed the new immigrants.
“I’m here to say that you’ve come home,” he said. The ministry stands ready to do “everything possible” to assist with their absorption, he said, adding that he was already working to address their need for language education, among other things.
“I view the successful absorption of the immigrant community as an issue of national importance and we are here to assist them in learning a new language and culture as well as being integrated into the national workforce,” he said.
A computer programmer by trade, Sergei says he hopes to continue to work in his field in Israel. His family had dreamed of aliyah even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he said.
“I am deeply thankful to the IFCJ for giving our child the hope of a better life,” he said. “Every day, all I wish for is that she will be able to laugh and meet other children her age. That is our dream for our new life in Israel.”