Immigrants from Russia and Ukraine pack food at an Israeli army base. Photo by Shishi Shabbat Yisrael.
Immigrants from Russia and Ukraine pack food at an Israeli army base. Photo by Shishi Shabbat Yisrael.
featureIsrael at War

‘Olim’ who fled Ukraine volunteering in Israel’s war effort

The teenagers and young adults are helping Israel’s war effort through Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli (SSY), a non-profit working to support Russian-speaking immigrant families.

The 300 volunteers arrive on buses from Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheva at army bases around Israel to work in 12-hour shifts sorting and packing medical equipment and field rations. They all fled Russia and Ukraine to avoid war, only to find it in their new home.

“I feel that it’s really important for each and every one of us to do what we can to support our soldiers,” explained Yulia Smenanko, who arrived in Israel in 2022.

“I grew up in Crimea, and when Russia invaded, I lost my homeland. Many of my friends are on the front, fighting in Kyiv, in Dnieper, in Luhansk and in Lvov. For more than a year and a half, they’ve been fighting for their homeland, their lives, the right to live in peace and freedom, and the right to live without fear of tomorrow. Now that I’m in Israel and settled in my new home, I feel that I have to do the same.”

Anastasia Strokova, 19, also arrived in Israel shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. She said she’s volunteering because “I can’t bear to sit still while animals are trying to destroy my home for the second time.”

The teenagers and young adults are helping Israel’s war effort through Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli (SSY), a nonprofit working to support Russian-speaking immigrant families and facilitate their integration into Israeli society.

“When I arrived in Israel, I very much wanted to join the army, but I received an automatic exemption because of my age,” said 25-year-old Moscow native Levi Zak. “Now I’m volunteering with Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli because I want my nation to win this war.”

Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre touched home for thousands of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom only recently escaped their own nightmares of war, explained Ilya Lipetsker, SSY’s director of operations.

“Many of them are unfortunately all too familiar with these scenes,” said Lipetsker. “They’ve suffered the throes of war, bombardments and seen loved ones die. More than anyone else, they can truly sympathize with soldiers and families of the bereaved, and the justice of Israel’s mission. They are giving all they have to help, and much more.”

SSY has opened six drop-off points and volunteer-run operations centers where supplies are collected and packaged, based on lists updated daily in collaboration with the Israel Defense Forces. Every day, SSY also dispatches five buses filled with volunteers to help with the sorting and packing.

Tatiana Mazor, 38, who manages one of SSY’s drop-off points, has been accepting hundreds of kilograms in donated items daily and offering a genuine smile and thank you to every donor. In September 2022, she and her family fled her native Odessa, which was being heavily bombarded by the Russians, and she is passionate about the importance of citizens and immigrants doing all they can to support Israel’s soldiers.

“Israel’s victory over Hamas is vital not only to Israel’s security but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the world itself. Not everyone is capable of being a soldier; personally, I’ve never held a weapon and never intend to. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t help on the home front. Every volunteer is another soldier on the home front,” Mazor insisted.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israel was steadily absorbing around 1,200 Russian-speaking immigrants each month, but that number has risen sharply since the invasion began in February 2022. Approximately 70,000 immigrants have arrived from former Soviet countries, including young children, senior citizens, adolescents and mothers who left their husbands and sons behind on the battlefield.

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