Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Jewish War Refugees from eastern Ukraine

The world is on the move, and often not by choice. Fight or flight? Should I stay or should I go? These are the questions asked by millions of people caught up in war zones.

After the fall of the former Soviet Union, many Ukrainian Jews migrated to Israel. Many left for the U.S. and Canada. Others resettled in Germany.

However, many Jews remained, building new lives and a thriving new community in an independent Ukraine. But Israel always remained an option, and this option took on a crucial importance when war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The war with Russian forces and Russian-backed bands ravaged many districts in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Much of the infrastructure collapsed. According to reports at least eight thousand people have been killed. Tens of thousands have been injured. Hundreds of thousands have fled.

According to UN figures, at least 250 thousand internally displaced people flooded into Kyiv. Many more sought refuge in other cities and towns throughout central and western Ukraine. Among them are hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews.

In the spring of 2014, as the crisis intensified, the Jewish Agency started a hotline for Ukrainian Jews who were interested in learning about Israel.

Israel’s Law of Return permits anyone with recent Jewish ancestry — even a single grandparent will do — to qualify for full Israeli citizenship. By some estimates, up to 200 thousand Ukrainians are eligible. Immigration offers concrete benefits paid for by the Israeli government. These include a free one-way flight to Tel Aviv, cash grants, tax cuts, and mortgage breaks.

There are Ukrainians with Jewish roots who have not practiced Judaism for years, if ever. And they need evidence of their Jewish background to gain entry to Israel. The Shorashim program that opened with offices in the cities of Dnipro and Kyiv helps Ukrainians find archival evidence of their Jewishness. They are responsible for completing applicants’ files in Ukraine that show the applicant is Jewish through background research on their grandparents, and verifying and copying records.

In light of the continuing dramatic situation, some 7,480 Ukrainians immigrated to Israel in 2015. This was up 22% compared to 2014, and 230% compared to 2013.
But emigration overseas has not been the only avenue for Ukrainian Jewish refugees from the war to rebuild their shattered lives. The Jerusalem Post reported that in May 2015 the Israeli government increased funds to help Ukrainian Jewish refugees in Ukraine.

The Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry signed an agreement with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to create a common fund. Three-quarters of the fund was endowed by the government to resettle Jewish internally displaced persons within Ukraine. The money was used to subsidize food and rent costs for a period of two months for those fleeing the war.

The social solidarity within the Ukrainian Jewish community can be seen in the work of the Jewish charitable organization Hesed in central Kyiv. The Jerusalem Report outlined how a continuing flow of previously self-sufficient Jews from eastern Ukraine arrived seeking help. They needed housing, food, clothes, medical care, and social support. Hesed, supported by the American-based Joint, does its best to help those most in need.

There have been other bold initiatives. The Israeli and Ukrainian media have reported on the Kyiv-based Rabbi Moshe Azman and his announced multi-million dollar “Jewish refugee community” outside the capital.
The community is called “Anatevka,” named after the fictional village in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof.

It is a community in the making, spread out on a plot the size of three football fields. Anatevka features a wooden synagogue with two ritual baths. A path connects the three-story synagogue building to a dormitory-style residence and a central kitchen. A newly built school is nearby.

Azman has been drawing on money from his own pocket and private donors to build and maintain Anatevka. It is designed not only to serve as a refugee center, but as a living community. A place for the future.

Should I stay or should I go? Israel beckons, but Ukraine will always be home for many. The Times of Israel, in its coverage on the people of Anatevka, quoted Meshulam Kolesnik, a web designer who was forced to leave Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine by Russia.

“We are once again living among equals in our own Jewish community and country,” he said. “And like this, I think we can face whatever lies ahead.”

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!

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