The Jewish Agency has always been - and will always be - there whenever a Jew is in need. This was dramatically brought home over the last five days, as the Jewish Agency, in cooperation with the Israeli Government, rescued Jews from the war-torn country of Georgia.
On Tuesday evening, August 12th, a few days after the outbreak of fighting, the Jewish Agency brought 34 new immigrants home to Israel, keeping the promise that any Jew, for any reason, can make Israel their home. This followed the daring evacuation, led by Alex Katz, Head of the Jewish Agency's FSU delegation, of almost the entire 200-strong Jewish community of war-ravaged Gori to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Eli Cohen, Director General of the Jewish Agency's Department for
Aliyah and Absorption, greets the new immigrants from Georgia at Ben
"The current operation is unprecedented in its swiftness," said Eli Cohen, Director General of the Jewish Agency's Department for Aliyah and Absorption after meeting the new immigrants at the airport. "In 72 hours we evacuated Jews under fire, helped them to obtain visas to leave Georgia, verified their eligibility to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, and got them on a plane to Israel."
The new immigrants arrived at the airport on special El Al Flights coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that also brought home stranded Israelis. As of Tuesday evening, Israel was the only country that airlifted its citizens out of Georgia.
With a mixture of happiness and relief at being out of danger, tinged with deep anxiety for family members still in Georgia, the new immigrants talked about the ravaged country they left behind and their appreciation for being safely brought to Israel.
Anri Baavovi, rescued by the Jewish Agency from Gori, arrived in Israel with only the clothes on his back.|
Fifteen-year-old Anri Baavovi, an only child from Gori, made aliyah with his aunt Eka Davarashvili and his cousin Gabi, 10. His mother and father stayed behind in Tbilisi, hoping to return after the ceasefire to salvage their property and business.
"I have never been so scared in my life," said Anri. "On Friday, our home was damaged by shrapnel from a nearby explosion. We hid until the Jewish Agency sent a taxi for us on Saturday. We left everything behind, taking only a small bag for the three of us. I arrived here in Israel with just the clothes I am wearing."
Trying hard to stay composed, Anri said that while watching the news in Tbilisi he saw that his home had been hit again and severely damaged. "We probably would have been killed if we stayed in Gori," he stated starkly.
Tamar Mosheshvili, 27, also from Gori, tells a similar story. A lecturer in business at the University of Gori, she began considering aliyah three years ago when, thanks to a grant from the Jewish Agency, she visited Israel on a Birthright Israel trip, and fell in love with the country.
"What is happening in Gori is unbelievable," she said. "Innocent civilians are being killed. The casualties are far higher than what is being reported. I haven't got a friend who did not have a family member killed."
Mosheshvili made aliyah with her mother Liana and her younger brother David, who was studying dentistry at the University of Gori. Their father Arkady has remained behind in Tbilisi to look after the family home when the fighting stops. Arkady and Liana ran the Hesed welfare center for the city's Jewish community. "Thank God nobody in the Jewish community has been hurt," said Liana.
"On Saturday, when we got the green light from the Jewish Agency, we came out of hiding in the basement of our home and put a few things in the car and drove to Tbilisi, fearing that we would be killed at any minute."
"Our main worry was that the airport would remain closed because of the bombing. It seemed like a miracle when the Jewish Agency took us to the airport and put us on the plane and we took off," continued Liana.
"We feel that the Jewish Agency saved our lives," said David Mosheshvili. "Most of the residents of Gori have nowhere to go. They are stuck there as sitting ducks."
Sixty people submitted requests to make emergency aliyah this week in Georgia (including the 34 who arrived on Tuesday), and 100 more Georgian Jews are expected to immigrate to Israel in the near future. The Jewish Agency is providing special absorption opportunities to entire households (three generations). In a meeting between Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski, Eli Aflalo, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and senior staff of his ministry, it was decided to expand the project of community absorption in the cities with a large concentration of veteran immigrants from Georgia to enable new immigrants to live close to their families in Israel.
The Jewish Agency has prepared absorption solutions for the immediate- and long-term for every family expected to arrive from Georgia in the coming days and weeks, each according to their special needs.
Vazha and Irena Mamiashvili, with their two young sons,|
home to Israel.
Vazha Mamiashvili, a 37-year-old engineer, made aliyah yesterday from Tbilisi with his wife Irena and two sons, Nikoloz and David. "We have been thinking about aliyah for years. This war was the last straw. We knew it was time to come. In Tbilisi we always drank a toast to peace in Israel. Now, we are in Israel and we will drink a toast to peace in Georgia."
The Mamiashvili family will be staying in a Jewish Agency Absorption Center in Jerusalem, and will then make their home on Kibbutz Masada.
Yossi Djanashvili, 13, and his sister Hava, 10, from the Israeli city of Holon were in Tbilisi visiting their grandparents for the summer vacation when the war broke out. Their parents told them to come home immediately, and to bring their grandparents with them as new immigrants. With the help of the Jewish Agency, the youngsters did just that. "It was a bit scary," admitted Yossi. "We heard explosions all the time. But one good thing has happened. Our grandparents will now be living with us in Israel."
The Jewish Agency is also making available opportunities for Jewish youth from Georgia interested in Jewish Agency programs in Israel, including summer camps and study-in-Israel programs.
Hours after the initial outbreak of hostilities on Friday, the Jewish Agency opened two situation rooms with 24-hour hotlines, one in Jerusalem and one in Tbilisi, to provide assistance to Jews in Georgia and Georgian-Israelis worried about their loved ones.
Georgian-Israelis Yossi, 13, and Hava, 10, Djanashvili |
"The Jewish Agency, as a bridge between the State of Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora, will continue to do what it takes to assist Jewish communities in times of crisis," said Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski. "This is a moment of pride for the Jewish Agency family and a moment that reinforces the sense of mutual responsibility between us, as Jews living in Israel, and Jewish people wherever they live in the world."
Since 1989 the Jewish Agency has brought more than 24,000 Georgian Jews to Israel from the former Soviet republic. Immigration from Georgia rose from 260 in 2006 to 326 last year. In the first half of 2008, 146 Georgian Jews were flown to Israel by the Jewish Agency and now, in the wake of the war, the Jewish Agency expects that this year's immigration will surpass that of 2007. There are an estimated 12,000 Jews remaining in Georgia.
Chairman Zeev Bielski's letter to Friends around the world - August 11th
Chairman Zeev Bielski's letter - August 12th
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Photo Credit: Brian Hendler