Field Report, Wednesday, April 2, 2014
By Roman Polonsky, Head of the Unit for Russian-Speaking Jewry
Aliyah and the Activities of the Jewish Agency
From Kiev to Kharkov, from Dnepropetrovsk to Simferopol – the sense of rapid change and uncertainty in Ukraine is simply palpable.
A week of walking the streets and participating in local activities of The Jewish Agency, of working alongside our tireless emissaries and meeting with local Jewish leaders, has brought me back to Jerusalem brimming with impressions on Ukraine, on the complexity of the situation as it stands today, and on the Agency’s work there.
In recent months, Jewish Agency offices across the country have seen an upsurge in Aliyah applications from potential new immigrants, as well as a rise in new olim.
A total of 375 new immigrants have come to Israel from Ukraine in January-March of this year, on board Jewish Agency flights: 70% more than in the same months last year (221). The growth is mostly recorded in the regions of Odessa (105 new immigrants; +218%), Dnepropetrovsk (55 new immigrants; +96%), Kharkov (68 new immigrants; +71%) and Simferopol (30 new immigrants; +33%). Some 43 new immigrants more arrived today from the Crimea with a special flight. Note that these numbers relate only to those who came with Jewish Agency flights, and will grow on account of those who came to Israel as tourists and changed their status to a “new immigrant” once already here in the country.
This tendency of growing Aliyah is continuing in the registration for Aliyah flights to Israel for April and the following months. Over 130 new immigrants have already registered in Ukraine for April flights to Israel – these numbers are not final and continue to grow every day. All aliyah coordinators in Simferopol, Odessa, Kiev and Kharkov are working long hours and sometimes even nights to help prospective olim access information, receive appropriate program advice, absorption solutions and document processing. While normally our emissaries themselves facilitate interviews with Selah program candidates (Selah is a 10-month academic preparatory course and Aliyah program for recent high school graduates from the FSU who immigrate to Israel prior to their parents or on their own.), in today’s circumstances, representatives of the RSJ Unit and the Aliyah and Absorption Unit have had to come to reinforce staff resources in Ukraine.
The atmosphere in Kiev seems quiet and calm, but one can feel an air of national patriotism and civil uprising in the city. Our Aliyah coordinator in Kiev told me of a doctor who postponed his flight to Israel a few days before his Aliyah, in order to go to the Maidan Square to treat the wounded. I met a young woman who was struck by her friends’ enthusiasm in supporting the Ukrainian army; the Ukrainian people are raising money for army needs by sending an SMS for five hryvna each, and have already raised tens of millions, a non-trivial accomplishment in this part of the world. There, in Kiev, I met several Aliyah candidates who came to The Jewish Agency for the first time on these very days. I met two successful doctors with private clinics, a businessman, and a librarian. Their mood is significantly different from that of the younger generation: they all spoke of instability, fear of future and fear for children, and see Israel as an isle of stability and promise of a better future.
Kharkov, however, is an entirely different world, being on the eastern border of Ukraine and close to Russia. Locals are tense and anxious about the future. Some of the people I spoke to said that the new government in Kiev does not inspire confidence, that all the events they are witnessing mean only a redistribution of power between those who support a closer alliance with the EU and those in favor of closer ties with Russia. People say that neither of the parties help common people when they come to power, that nationalistic statements and slogans frighten them as much as the cancellation of Russian as a state language (the majority of Kharkovites speak Russian).
At the same time, most Kharkovites that I met stand for the territorial integrity of Ukraine – Kharkov, after all, is a Ukrainian city, and having been the capital of Ukraine at one point, is at the heart of Ukrainian history. Speak to locals, and you’ll hear that they want to be left alone to live their own lives in peace, and that they support the federalization of the country. There are economic reasons for that also – Kharkov’s input in Ukraine’s national budget is much greater than what it receives in turn. The people I spoke to fear for their future; they are at once worried about Russia’s further steps and about the new government taking hold in Kiev. However, I saw a demonstration in support of the new Kiev government in Kharkov. The media reported later that about five thousand people took part in this demonstration.
In the Agency center in Kharkov, Jews who come for aliyah consultations look tense as they seek information on opportunities in Israel, on Jewish Agency programs, and on Aliyah eligibility guidelines. All the emissaries of the Jewish Agency report a sharp increase of first-time applicants. When I met with Rabbi Moskovitch, who has served as Kharkov’s Chabad emissary for the past 20 years, he spoke of the risk of any provocations as instability continues, and also mentioned the decrease of local donations to the community due to the general situation.
In Crimea, the political situation is surprisingly calm. I felt strange crossing the border – border guards dressed in uniforms of Ukrainian border service, though they are now Russian guards, put a Ukrainian stamp into my passport. Here and there, one can see people in green unidentified uniforms, who stop vehicles and ask politely where and for what purpose one is heading. People see joining Russia as a fait accompli and no more military or political turmoil is expected here. At the same time, the economic situation is rather complicated. One prospective oleh, an engineer from a liquor distillery, told me that all the workers were sent on holiday for four months, because Ukraine has stopped supplying alcohol and purchasing the plant products. Everyone understands that the economic situation will only grow more difficult. However, on March 31, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and announced that the development of the Crimea is a priority for the Russian Federation, promising to create a special economic zone, improve infrastructure, and increase salaries for state workers and pensions. Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Mykhailo Koval reported a decrease in the number of Russian troops along the eastern border of Ukraine. The Russian ruble is already in use in Crimea, and local passports are gradually converting: Crimeans are offered either Russian citizenship, Ukrainian citizenship, or no citizenship at all.
I met Anatoliy Gendin, the Chairman of Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea and the Chairman of the Community of Progressive Judaism in Simferopol, alongside other Crimean Jewish leaders from Kerch, Evpatoria, Feodisiya and Sevastopol and the Agency shaliach in Simferopol. Community leaders expressed concerns over the local Chabad rabbi leaving Crimea for New York taking the Torah scrolls with him. The Reform rabbi’s leaving Crimea also concerns the community. The Jewish leaders told me that as local communities gear up for uncertain future, local donations have significantly decreased.
The office of the Jewish Agency has been working in Simferopol since 1993, providing a wide variety of Agency services to its 8,000 Jewish population – aliyah consultations and preparation for those who decided to move to Israel, flights to Israel, Hebrew studies, cultural events, educational activities, summer camps and more. In the last several years, due to budget constraints, the RSJ Unit is working in the Crimea through a mobile shaliach – an emissary who is based as a staff worker in Jerusalem’s RSJ unit, and who fulfills all functions of the Head of the office and of an Aliyah shaliach in Simferopol, going there for a week or two depending on demand. The rest of his time, he is managing all the activities of the office remotely. Due to today’s circumstances, our mobile shaliach Michael Shteingoff in Crimea has been there twice in March alone.
In addition to the growth of aliyah and aliyah consultations, the number of Jews interested in Hebrew studies grows daily: this month, we opened a new Hebrew study group in Kiev, and another one is set to begin in early April. The educational division of the Russian Speaking Unit has recruited two additional Hebrew teachers to meet growing demand; another new Hebrew study group is set to open in Dnepropetrovsk and Simferopol.
Due to cancellations in the flights between Simferopol and Kiev, we are flying out new olim from Crimea through alternative routes, which are difficult and costly.
All Jewish Agency offices in Ukraine remain open and activities continue: Entrance exams for Na'aleh are being held at Jewish Agency offices in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Odessa. Nearly 300 teens have taken part in the exams in Ukraine. (Na'aleh is a three-year program of studies in Israeli high schools, while boarding and amenities are provided to the teenagers who mostly are from the FSU.)
This week, interviews for 112 Selah candidates have started in Ukraine. (There is also a special Masa-Sela program when young adults may stay in Israel after ten months of their Masa program).
There have been occasional reports of anti-Semitic incidents that concern seriously the local Jews. A mother of a teenager who is leaving for the Naaleh program told me that her neighbor met her saying, “Now we’ll teach these Moscovites and Kikes.” She added that often, during revolutions, when a society’s moral structure weakens, hate crimes rise to the top and become common. If a minority can be persecuted while the central government is unable to respond, there is serious reason for concern, she added. However, the Jewish leaders I met do not express fear of anti-Semitism as much as general instability. Rabbi Dukhovny, who has been serving the Progressive movement in Kiev and Ukraine for 15 years, said that he is not witnessing a serious rise of anti-Semitism at the moment, though Kiev’s Jews are afraid of future incitements. Similarly, in Crimea, Anatoliy Gendin told me that Jews are not afraid of anti-Semitism, though the general situation of instability increases the risk of harassment of any minorities, Jews included.
Security Support from The Jewish Agency
In the past few weeks, The Jewish Agency's Emergency Assistance Fund – which helps provide security guards, bullet-proof windows, and the like – has transferred over $350,000 to more than 100 organizations and Jewish communities in 35 Ukrainian towns and cities.
In Crimea, the assistance was provided to 13 Jewish institutions in the towns of Simferopol, Kerch, Evpatoria, Sevastopol, Yalta and Feodosia. Among the institutions that received the assistance were about six Hessed centers, two Chabad communities, and three progressive Judaism community centers, among others.