Their Birthright program is over. War is keeping these Ukrainian and Russian Jews in Israel.
Some of the young Jews from Ukraine and Russia have finished their Birthright trips and others are still touring, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that many can’t head home.
There are now three groups from Russia and Ukraine on Birthright Israel trips, with 26 of the participants from Ukraine. Sixteen of the Ukrainians were slated to fly home Thursday and were sitting on the tarmac awaiting take-off when the Russian invasion began. Their flight was canceled.
“I feel scared that these things can happen in the 21st century,” said Anastasia Bilig, who is from Kyiv and was on a Birthright Israel tour of Jerusalem. “It’s horrible. It’s terrible. And I have no words in my mind to describe it.”
Her friend Lola Koktysh, also from Kyiv, said she was shocked by the invasion.
“I knew the situation was intensifying fast, but no one could predict what would happen today,” she said. “And right now, everyone is afraid. There is panic, but people are still hopeful. And even in the light of the heartbreaking events, we are staying united.”
A group of 18 Russian participants who were scheduled to return to Moscow also had their flight canceled. Both groups were then taken by Birthright to hotels in Tel Aviv.
Taglit-Birthright Israel brings nearly 5,000 young people ages 18-32 from Russian-speaking countries to Israel each year, with most from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The tours had been suspended for two years due to COVID-19 and resumed this month.
Gidi Mark, Birthright’s CEO, said the organization is committed to helping Ukrainian participants during the hostilities. He said they can choose to stay with a family in Israel, fly to Warsaw or join its Onward Israel program, which provides professional and academic opportunities, for an additional month in the country.
“Whatever solution works best, we will be there to support and care for them until they can reunited with their families in their hometown,” he said.