Last week, I stood on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport alongside UJIA colleagues and partners to welcome 140 new Ukrainian Olim to Israel. It was a poignant and humbling experience, inspirational and harrowing at the same time.
The new arrivals had escaped the horror of the invasion of their homeland and made it to Bucharest where their flight to Israel took off. We felt building anticipation as we saw their plane approaching. As they emerged it was clear that, while obviously relieved, they were traumatised, shocked and exhausted.
Most were either elderly people or young mothers, clutching small children and babies. Men of fighting age had of course stayed behind in Ukraine. It was heart breaking and impossible for me to convey in words the haunted look in their eyes from what they have been through in the past couple of weeks. Very little luggage came off the plane; these were people who had left in a hurry. They tried their best to smile and thank us for being there to greet them but their minds were back home.
Most of these Olim would not have chosen to make their lives in Israel. Until the Russian invasion they led good lives in Ukraine – full Jewish lives at that. They made the painful decision to leave their home and everything and everyone else they know. It was not an ideal choice, one young mother explained to me, but one she made to protect her two young sons. When she thought about their future, she explained, then if they had to leave she wanted it to be to Israel.
Alongside me at the airport was UJIA’s CEO Mandie Winston. In a moment of remarkable coincidence, Mandie recognised one the of the women disembarking from the plane from her time working with the Odesa Jewish community. They saw each other and embraced. It was deeply moving on a personal level, and as a snapshot of just how interconnected the Jewish people are and need to be.
As the new Olim boarded buses to the terminal, I took time to reflect. We talk about Jewish peoplehood but it is at times like this we see it action. It is so important that we come together to support Jews who need us most.
We are fortunate that the State of Israel exists to provide a home for members of Jewish communities who need one. This new wave of Ukrainian Olim will be taken in and will, in time and despite the horrors they have faced, build new lives there. They will join Olim who have arrived over the course of Israel’s history, whether from Iraq, Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Venezuela or elsewhere. We can be sure that many more will follow.
Our community has responded magnificently to the horror that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed. The humanitarian needs of Ukrainians are monumental and I am in awe of the work being done by World Jewish Relief. I urge everyone to support their continued efforts on behalf of refugees.
The aliyah now underway from Ukraine is also a moment in Jewish history and the history of Israel. UJIA has always been committed to helping Jews in need build a new home in Israel – a task that is only made possible thanks to the incredible work of our partners at the Jewish Agency for Israel.
We are all responsible for each other. I hope Jewish communities around the world will come together to help the tired, traumatised and scared women, children and elderly people who I met last week, and those who will follow in their footsteps, as they rebuild their shattered lives in the Jewish homeland.