Israel’s Mountain Jews help absorb Ukrainian and Russian refugees

The logistics involved in the process of assisting new arrivals are complex. Nevertheless, with the aid of Israeli citizens, these individuals are receiving the support they need.

MAKOM Communities hosts Passover seders for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Credit: JNF-USA.
MAKOM Communities hosts Passover seders for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Credit: JNF-USA.

By Zachary DuBow

For more than a year now, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine continues to displace millions of civilians. And as Israel and Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Passover, it is estimated that more than 30,000 individuals are expected to make aliyah from the affected regions. Approximately 60% of these immigrants have emigrated from Russia due to new forced conscription policies and the bleak outlook for their future in the country, with the rest coming from war-torn Ukraine.

The logistics involved in the process of assisting refugees in reaching and settling in Israel are complex. Nevertheless, with the aid of Israeli citizens, these individuals are receiving the support they need.

Jewish National Fund-USA’s MAKOM Communities is a non-profit organization composed of just three employees who have accomplished the remarkable feat of mobilizing a vast network of volunteers to assist new immigrants to Israel. They oversee a dozen-plus volunteer organizations catering to Israel’s diverse social needs, including education, religion, culture and music. MAKOM fosters a strong sense of community among newly arriving Israelis through these initiatives.

Newly arrived Ukrainians bake matzah in Beersheva before the start of the Passover holiday with Jewish National Fund-USA’s MAKOM Communities. Credit: JNF-USA.

MAKOM (the Hebrew word for “place”) volunteers recognized the urgent need resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war and set out to assist these refugees in making aliyah. They have also played a leading role in providing Passover necessities to those in need, many of whom are recent olim (immigrants to Israel).

The Mountain Jews, a group whose ancestors resided in the Caucuses mountains for centuries before moving to Israel, have been particularly instrumental in aiding the new olim. Descended from Jews who settled in Persia’s empire after the Babylonian Exile, they emigrated en masse following the collapse of the Soviet Union with the majority relocating to Israel, the United States and Germany.

There are now roughly 170,000 Mountain Jews in Israel, as well as a similar number of Ethiopian Jews. Like the Mountain Jews, they largely fell between the cracks after making aliyah. They were settled in remote “development towns” that lacked basic amenities and soon became riddled with crimes.

Eventually, several Mountain Jews who found financial success helped drive their community out of poverty. They know firsthand what makes or breaks an immigrant’s absorption process and are now helping MAKOM Communities deliver a smoother absorption process for this new wave of refugees. That entails running programs for children, encouraging youth leadership and helping to foster or look for job opportunities for young adults and families.

The educational programs for children are a key component of the Mountain Jews’ contributions, reflective of a community who, having immigrated to Israel themselves, know what it’s like to feel out of place in a new environment.

“Education is the strongest weapon that one can use to change the world,” said Sarit Hanukayev, a member of the Mountain Jews MAKOM community in Sderot.

MAKOM Communities hosts Passover seders for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Credit: JNF-USA.

‘Bridge between the past and the present’

There are nine Mountain Jews communities across Israel. Each one provides early childhood programs that give hundreds of children an equal chance of succeeding in life and bridging the gap. Notably, their early-childhood education programs are not limited to Mountain Jews’ youth but are rather open to the broader public.

These programs emphasize the tools needed to overcome societal gaps, including language, classroom learning and social skills. The programs also make sure that the children are well-fed and healthy.

“I arrived in Israel at 16 and needed to find my way and learn how to become an Israeli. It took years to feel that I belong,” said Stas Mardakhayev, one of the founders of the Mountain Jews MAKOM communities. “When we founded the Mountain Jews MAKOM communities, we understood that it’s our responsibility to bridge between the past and the present, embracing our heritage while becoming what Israel needs. With the wave of immigrants during the past year, we know firsthand what it’s like to be in a new country with a new language and culture and what it takes to make it feel like home, even if it looks nothing like home used to be.”

This is key for immigrants to succeed—making a new home and a new life for themselves in Israel.

“We don’t want them to see Israel as a stopping point on the way to their next country,” said Shosh Mitzman, director of MAKOM Communities. “We want them to see Israel as their final destination.”

For more information or to support MAKOM Communities, visit: jnf.org/makom.

MAKOM Communities volunteers help deliver kosher-for-Passover food to newly arrived Ukrainian and Russian refugees in Israel. Credit: JNF-USA.
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Jewish National Fund-USA builds a strong, vibrant future for the land and people of Israel through bold initiatives and Zionist education. As a leading philanthropic movement, the organization supports critical environmental and nation-building activities in Israel’s north and south as it develops new communities in the Negev and Galilee, connects the next generation to Israel, and creates infrastructure and programs that support ecology, people with disabilities, and heritage site preservation, all while running a fully accredited study abroad experience through its Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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