With more than 5,000 Russian-speaking immigrants arriving in Israel each month, Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli (Israeli Weekend), a nonprofit founded in 2010, has been working to support the families and facilitate their integration into society.
Linda Pardes-Friedburg, the founder of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli, emphasized the importance of community support for Russian-speaking immigrants.
“Especially in these times of war when many have left family and friends behind in dangerous, war-torn countries, Russian-speaking olim need the support of a community,” she said.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel had been absorbing around 1,200 Russian-speaking immigrants each month since 2010. But since the war began, this number has sharply risen. Approximately 70,000 immigrants have arrived from former Soviet countries, including young children, senior citizens, adolescents, and mothers who have left their husbands and sons behind on the battlefield.
An estimated 500,000 persons in Russia qualify to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return, which offers Jews anywhere in the world the right to move to Israel and obtain citizenship.
However, the challenges of relocating to a new country and adapting to a different culture and language, combined with the hardships of war and the uncertainty of the fates of loved ones left behind leave many new immigrants feeling disconnected from Israeli society. Instead of facing these obstacles and striving to overcome them, many choose to leave Israel in search of opportunities elsewhere.
The trend prompted the Israeli government to reinstate a requirement for immigrants to live in Israel for a year before receiving permanent passports. Under the proposed law, immigrants during their first year would be given temporary passports for travel.
Knesset legislation noted that 4,094 new immigrants requested passports between June 2021-June 2022 within a month of obtaining citizenship, but only 60% of those immigrants were living in Israel.
Interior Ministry officials believe the other 40% only went through the paperwork of immigrating to obtain Israeli passports.
Countering the trend
Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli aims to counter this trend by organizing holiday events for new immigrants and for lone soldiers without family in Israel who can help them, volunteer projects with Russian-speaking seniors, Hebrew language courses, professional mentoring and the more recent Argaman Jewish Cultural Project, which facilitates meetings between Israeli artists and immigrants to teach them about Israeli culture.
These programs all deepen their understanding of Israeli society and their own Jewish identities, Pardes-Friedburg said.
Lidia Shtelmach, one of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli’s first participants, is today the organization’s national Sabbath host coordinator.
“The recent months have been especially difficult for Russian-speaking olim,” said Shtelmach. “We are dealing with a monthly influx of thousands of olim every month from Russia and Ukraine, and the absorption and acclimation challenges they face are enormous.”
Earlier in June, Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli brought more than 100 immigrants, including several Russian-speaking lone soldiers, to a berry-picking farm in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. The trip was followed by a tour of the area and a visit to the Gush Etzion Winery for some wine tasting.
Arkady, 24, a lone soldier in the Israel Air Force who joined the Gush Etzion trip said, “It was the first time I tasted fresh berries in over two years! But it wasn’t just the good old-fashioned fun that made the experience so special, but the opportunity to hang out with like-minded individuals who are going through similar challenges, whom I can support and turn to for support.
“I don’t know what my plans are for the future yet but I’m definitely planning on staying in Israel.”
The bureaucratic hurdles for Russian-speaking immigrants can be formidable.
“Unfortunately, the Israeli government has not been able to keep up with the increased rate of aliyah,” Pardes-Friedburg said. “Thousands of new immigrants have not yet received their teudat oleh [‘immigration certificate’], which entitles them to government financial aid and welfare assistance.”
Without official immigrant status, dozens of families have been reduced to hunger and grave financial distress. Their children can’t start school and the parents can’t begin looking for work before all the paperwork is arranged. The urgency led Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli to expand its services from social-professional support to distributing urgent financial assistance.
This past month, the organization distributed 1,000 shekel (about $275) food gift cards to more than 90 families.
Since Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli’s establishment, some 15,000 immigrants have participated in the organization’s programs.