December 23, 2001
Comment By Chaim Chesler
(November 4) - Thirty days ago, on October 4, 78 passengers and crew of a Siberian Airlines flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk lost their lives when the plane was hit by a Ukrainian missile fired during a military exercise and crashed into the Black Sea. Fifty-one of the passengers were Israelis, all but one of them recent immigrants to Israel from the FSU.
At the Jewish Agency, we immediately sprang into action. We established four offices, in Jerusalem, Moscow, Novosibirsk and Sochi that were open around the clock to help the families of the victims in any way possible. We arranged for a plane to take the families of the victims of the crash to Sochi, and later, we covered the travel costs of those who wished to travel on to family in other parts of the FSU, or those who wished to bring first-degree family members to be with them in Israel. It was a small financial outlay, but a gesture of support that was clearly appreciated.
I had the difficult task of heading our delegation to Sochi, and of trying to comfort the families as they identified the bodies of those killed in the crash, or, as was more often the case, identified only a personal possession that was recovered from the wreckage. In many agonizingly painful cases, they found nothing.
As hard as it was to try to offer words of comfort where there were none adequate to the task, it was an honor to try and express to these grief-stricken people that there was an organization working in the name of the Jewish people, supporting them, helping them, caring for them. In the short term we accepted the task that confronted us and, I believe, we did not fail. But in the long term?
I, personally, had never experienced such a concentration of sorrow among new immigrants. It was the second time within four months that the veteran Israeli public was confronted with the difficult realities being experienced by the million new immigrants who arrived here over the past decade from the countries of the former Soviet Union. We saw their vulnerability and their isolation. Whereas most veteran Israelis have a personal support system on which they can rely in times of crisis, many of these immigrants have no one to whom they can turn and are often unfamiliar with the bureaucratic processes that must be completed.
The events in Sochi brought into acute focus the duality of the immigrants' integration into Israeli society. The Jewish Agency supported the families during the negotiations with the Russian authorities, and we discovered a very welcoming openness on their part. They were happy to cooperate and to accede to our requests.
YET MANY of the families of the victims, who had grown up in the Soviet climate, were critical of the Russian officials. There was a comforting irony here - to the extent that anything can be comforting when surrounded with such sorrow. As difficult as the families found it to express themselves in Hebrew and as unfamiliar as they were with our burial and mourning customs, they were already sufficiently at home in Israel to unfavorably compare other bureaucratic machineswith the system here.
However, as much as they compared Israel favorably to the land of their birth, in many ways, the position of the FSU immigrant community here is still weak. Many of its members are struggling, both financially and to define their identity as Israelis, just as the community is still searching to find its collective voice. Particularly when hit by such tragic events as the Dolphinarium suicide bomb attack and the Black Sea airplane crash, it is a community in distress.
Israel and the Jewish world have an ongoing responsibility to support the immigrants during their distress and to provide the community members with the support they need. Tragedies can strike at any one, but when every fifth Jew in Israel originates in the FSU, simple deductiondictates that we must establish special mechanisms to help this community.
In the wake of the Black Sea crash, the urgency to do so is all the greater and the Jewish Agency is eager to meet this challenge. We need to establish a nationwide network of volunteers. Some should be trained in social work or psychology; some must be Russian-speakers. Others can have no particular skills but simply have the ability to listen, to support, to care. They can - and should - be veteran Israelis from all walks of life who understand that beyond tzedaka is the responsibility to be a mensch and personally to care for others.
Yet we cannot and do not want to do this alone and I call on world Jewry to help us. Together we bring immigrants to Israel; together we must be there for them when they need our help. We must not fail them.
The writer is treasurer of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
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