I Am a Former Jewish Refugee, and This Is Why Israel Is Important to Me
In front of me is a handwritten letter written by Elena Yarylchenko, a Jewish woman from Luhansk, an East-Ukrainian city, which over the past year became a scene of heavy fighting between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions.
Elena, along with many other Jewish families had to flee her home city because heavy fighting broke out here last spring between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions.
I met some of modern-day Jewish refugees like her when I visited Anatevka, a Jewish refugee village named in memory of “Fiddler on the Roof,” outside Kyiv in December 2015. Sheltered through the efforts of Rav Moshe Azman, the Rabbi of Kyiv’s historic Brodski Synagogue and a chief Rabbi of Ukraine, they expressed profound gratitude for having a roof over their heads, work that gave them a sense of dignity, and safety and education for their kids.
In the letter Elena writes about war having shattered her life and work as director of the Simcha children’s education and recreation facility of the Luhansk Jewish community, which helped impoverished children get Jewish education along with food, clothing and medical care:
Already in April, when the first armed take-overs of buildings and shelling of homes began, it was clear to us that our normal life was over…
By the end of June, 22 people had moved into the facility from those parts of the city and region where it was too dangerous to stay – both adults and children.
The shelling continued daily, during different times of day and night. We did not see who was shooting at whom but could tell that the shells were flying next to us, into nearby homes, over our house. All we could do was to pray that no one be injured.
We had to spend nights in the basement. There were days when the children were not allowed into the street at all: it was dangerous. We managed to observe kashrut, organized Shabbat meals (in the basement during the shelling). I did not have time to think about the danger. The most important thing was to find food, deliver it, manage to cook it in between explosions.
We had no communication with others. At first electricity went out, then water. And at the beginning of August, I began to realize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to supply this many people with food and water.
And this is when help arrived. Our rabbi, with the help of the organization Ezra began moving community members and their families out of Luhansk… We had to entrust ourselves to other people and go into the unknown, with shells whistling over our heads.
Elena says that thanks to the support of the Jewish community, the children have found a place to live and “can laugh and speak out loud, and the parents are not shutting them up with ‘Quiet! We can’t hear the street! We can’t tell from where and in which direction the shells are firing.’ Yet, she concludes, “the way home so far remains closed.”
(Read the full translation of the letter here. For more photos a video from my December 2015 visit to Kyiv Anatevka, please scroll down to the end of the post.)
I relate to her story, not only because I saw with my own eyes some of these internally displaced Jewish Ukrainians who experienced her plight.
I relate to it because I, too, was once a Jewish refugee. My family emigrated to the United States from Russia, which at the time was still Soviet, back in 1989.
Lucky for us, we did not leave with bullets whistling over our heads. But any time you leave your home and plunge into the unknown, you feel lost, helpless, and at the mercy of strangers.
That is why I feel perplexed when I hear some diaspora Jews from largely well-off Western countries say that they don’t care so much whether Israel exists or not; that they feel that Israel should do more for them, rather than always using them as a bank; and – this is from a recent personal conversation – that they don’t care whether Israel survives as a majority Jewish state.
Like most Soviet Jews, growing up I had never set foot in a synagogue, was completely secular, and didn’t know a word of Hebrew or a single prayer. Nothing in my clothing would have betrayed my Jewishness.
And yet, I always had a very strong Jewish identity. In fact, no one in Russia ever thought of me and my family as anything other than a Jew.
How did they know? It was simple: in Russia, they determined Jewishness from the looks – not unlike someone determines one’s race in America.
(In case you are wondering what a Jew looked like in the eyes of the Soviet government, take a look at this very handy chart — a representative sample of what the police would have used in Soviet times, with pictures of “typical” ethnic faces. The representative Jew is circled. Yes, I know…)
Angry babushkas threw anti-Semitic remarks in my face if I blocked their way in a food line. Kids at school hurled stones at my brother, accompanying each one with anti-Semitic slurs.
The scientific council at my father’s institute failed him at his dissertation defense, because of his own “Jewish face” and also because his Jewish dissertation adviser had just fled Russia.
My Mom’s promotion as a television journalist was tabled for years because, having married a Jew, she was a Jew in her employer’s eyes. Anti-Semitic groups, whose meetings she attended to be the lone defender of the Jews, issued threats against her.
And then there was that one time when an irate truck driver nearly ran his giant Kamaz truck over our tiny Zhiguli car that had blocked its way at a railroad crossing. Anti-Semitic curses poured down on us as Dad desperately worked the wheel in an attempt to maneuver us out of the way.
That was the first time I saw my Dad scared. We emigrated soon after that.
This wasn’t so long ago. We are talking about the 1980s.
And what I, a former Soviet Jew, understand, is that if it hadn’t been for Israel, we quite possibly would not have had a path to freedom at all – or that that path might have been as hard as that of the refugees caught up in today’s migration crisis.
It was Israel that had worked tirelessly, largely behind the scenes, to make the exodus of a million and a half Soviet Jews possible.
It was Israel that drove fund-raising initiatives, worked with diaspora Jewry to coordinate campaigns, and negotiated with Soviet political leaders to get them to open the gates.
And most importantly, it was Israel that made sure that the “invitations” – the so-called vyzovs — “to reunite with family” in Israel (for decades the only condition under which Soviet citizens might have had a sliver of a hope to escape) continued to flow to Jewish families in the Soviet Union.
They made sure that these invitations were available to any Jew who wanted one, whether they did have family in Israel or not.
Generations of Soviet Jews left the Soviet Union with Israeli exit visas – including the hundreds of thousands who, like us, made the choice to go to the United States. (That choice was a bitter pill for Israelis, but that’s a separate story.)
Israeli exit visas were the Soviet Jews’ ticket to freedom.
And when the gates finally did burst wide open at the end of the 1980s, some 1.6 million people left, 979,000 for Israel – an exodus of massive proportions.
In my 26 years in the United States, I have met Americans who went out on the “Let My People Go” marches to free Soviet Jews; gave their bar-mitzvah and bat-mitzvah donations to HIAS – the organization that assisted Jewish refugees; and organized sit-ins and pray-ins in front of the UN and government buildings.
I am grateful to each and every one of them for their choice to stand up for justice, for their generosity and perseverance, which enabled my family to make it through our 4-month journey of emigration across Europe with enough resources to buy food, clothes, and secure a roof over our heads. I feel honored and fortunate to have shaken the hands of some of these people.
I know that it was thanks to their dedication that we were able to find our way out of our own Mitzrayim, and to do so with dignity and far greater security than what today’s refugees encounter.
But I also know that the fundamental reason this was possible is because Israel existed.
Last year in Haifa I met an Israeli who had worked in the Israeli representative office in Moscow in the late 1980s-early 1990s – the time of the greatest wave of that Soviet and post-Soviet exodus and the time when we left also.
He told me what an incredible sense of mission the six Israelis working in that representative office, housed in the Dutch embassy, had. Yes, it was just 6 people on the ground in Moscow, who operationalized this modern-day exodus. He also told me about covert rescue missions that Israelis undertook to save Jews who found themselves caught up in some of the armed conflicts that flared up after the Soviet Union fell apart.
Working in the background, of course, were multitudes in Israel: from government officials to ordinary Israelis who took the trouble to write invitations to their family members – real or imagined – to enable any Soviet Jew who wanted to leave to do so.
Some of the previously unknown details about that campaign is revealed in this very personal book by Yasha Kedmi, former head of Nativ, the Israeli organization that made it its mission to maintain connections with Soviet Jewry and support their emigration.
But this mission did not end when the Soviet exodus ended. Just as Elena, the Jewish woman from Luhansk, Jews in post-Soviet States and many other places in the world continue to be vulnerable – if not to anti-Semitism then to unstable regimes and armed conflicts not of their making.
Want to know what that looks like in real numbers? Some 30,000 people came to Israel in 2015 – the highest number in over a decade, 10 percent more than in 2014.
Of these, 8,000 came from France. 6,600 Jews came from Russia – twice as many as in 2011. But the largest increase was in the number of new olim from Ukraine – 7,000 people total, 15 percent more than in 2014 and 230 percent more compared to 2013.
And here’s the truth. As much as we want to think that every one of the new immigrants came to Israel motivated purely by their love for the holy land, the truth is that many came because they and their families were in danger or feeling vulnerable.
For them, Israel quite simply is a lifeline. These Jews know exactly why Israel is important for them.
According to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, today some 600,000 Jews continue to live in Russia. 350,000-500,000 Jews are estimated to still live in Ukraine. 160,000-170,000 Jews still live in Central Asia. Many of them are pensioners and are impoverished.
In these countries, Israeli Embassy personnel play critical roles to reach out to them, maintain strong ties with the local officials, and strengthening the ties between these countries and Israel.
This has been the case in Ukraine since its independence 25 years ago. Thanks to a considerable degree to Israel’s persistent diplomatic efforts, Ukraine – a country with one of the worst histories of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world – has become Israel’s biggest friend and ally, with some of the lowest rates of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and a just-appointed, first-ever Jewish prime minister.
I know about some of these efforts from speaking with one of the first Israeli Ambassadors to the independent Ukraine. And I know about them from observing the work of Israel’s current Ambassador Eliav Belotserkovsky.
In May of last year, the Israeli government increased the amount of money it allocated to help resettle Ukrainian Jews fleeing the war in the East, up from the already NIS 2 million it had allocated in 2014.
The Jews of Ukraine know exactly what Israel means for them.
Among middle-class Russians it has become the norm to get medical treatment in Israel, because Russia’s own health care system is in a miserable condition. For these people – Jews and non-Jews alike – the existence of Israel means the difference between health and illness and in some cases, the difference between life and death.
My own uncle is undergoing radiation treatment in Israel at this very moment, because he couldn’t get this kind of treatment back in Russia.
These Jews, too, know exactly why Israel is important for them.
And so I ask myself: how is it that we, the liberal Jewish community in the West – or at least some of our members, whose voices we are increasingly hearing in the media – have become so blasé about the existence of Israel?
How is it that some of us, who pride ourselves on our care for the world’s poor and vulnerable, forget entirely that there are hundreds of thousands of our own people around the globe whose fortune may change on a moment’s notice – so much so that we no longer understand why Israel is so important to us?
Are we really so far removed from the time when Israel did not exist, when there was not a single country in the world that wanted us and that we could call our home, as to believe that Israel’s existence is irrelevant to our lives and the lives of other Jews around the world?
How is it that we fail to grasp that the only reason Jews are able to escape those terrible, dangerous places with more wholeness than the millions of desperate souls caught up in the current refugee crisis is because the state of Israel is there to lobby and make deals with local officials on their behalf, offer support to communities they live in – and, when needed, offer them a way out, as happened with thousands of Ukrainian Jews just last year?
Have we become so complacent and secure in our illusion that we owe our successes to no one but ourselves – forgetting that just a few decades ago certain schools, occupations and even restaurants in this very blessed United States of America were closed to Jews?
The truth is, I feel genuinely happy that so many of us in the very diverse Western Jewish community feel that the world is our oyster and that we don’t need any special protections. May this really be true, and may it be true forever.
But I can’t help but be mystified at what appears to be a growing lack of awareness of what Israel means to so many other, less fortunate Jews around the globe and the self-centeredness that this lack of awareness produces.
And so I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, instead of sending the next generation of Jews on the all-expenses-paid Taglit trips, Jewish organizations should get them to go and spend a bit of time in these Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and anywhere else where many Jews live in precarious circumstances.
Where they depend on the ability of Israeli diplomats to negotiate on their behalf with their countries’ officials, to build bridges with non-Jewish communities around them, to provide them with financial assistance – and evacuate them on a moment’s notice when shells do begin to whistle over their heads.
No “propaganda,” of which Taglit is so often accused: just very real immersions into these Jews’ lives. Perhaps that would help us reignite a sense of connection to other, less fortunate Jews and realize with renewed clarity why the existence of Israel is so important to all of us a Jewish nation.