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‘There was nothing else to talk about’: How Ukrainian and Russian Jews sharing an apartment in Jerusalem are handling the war

JERUSALEM — Olga Stalgorova woke up Feb. 24 to find her friend Yulia Borysenko crying in the kitchen of their apartment in a downtown Jerusalem hotel.

“They attacked us,” said Borysenko, a 26-year-old from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

“They,” of course, meant Russia. Which is where Stalgarova, 24, grew up.

The two women — one from the attacking nation, one from the attacked — hugged and sobbed together. It was just the first of many complicated moments over the last two months of war in the apartment, one of several shared by 20 young adults from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus as part of a program that brings Jews from around the world to live, work, study and tour in Israel.

Borysenko, a psychologist, called the hug she received from Stalgarova, who produces online courses, “a sign of support” at a time when “I was feeling horrible.”

Both women – along with two others in the program, Valery Guseva, a 25-year-old Ukrainian graphic artist, and Maria Gazarkh, 32, a content-marketing specialist from St. Petersburg – said they plan to make aliyah when the program ends this spring, and possibly to encourage their families to join them.

Some 24,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far landed in Israel, according to data released early this week, including 7,204 Jews who officially immigrated. There were at least 200,000 people with at least one Jewish grandparent – and thus eligible for aliyah – in Ukraine before the war, and Jewish organizations are deployed throughout the country’s border region to help those who want to go and otherwise support the refugees.

Meanwhile, here in Jerusalem, the Russian offensive that has decimated cities and villages across Ukraine, killing some 2,000 civilians and displacing a quarter of the country’s residents, has tightened the bonds among participants in the program, Masa Israel Journeys.

Both the Russians and the Ukrainians interviewed condemned President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and said they stand with Ukraine as it defends itself. All four have attended pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, holding posters Guseva drew, such as one reading “No War.”

The war “was constantly being discussed” in the group early on, Gazarkh said. “There was nothing else to talk about.”

Borysenko, whose parents and grandfather remain in Ukraine, feels guilty about being out of harm’s way while her countrymen are in danger. Gazarkh, meanwhile, said she feels ashamed.

Olga Stalgorova at a Jerusalem rally in support of Ukraine.

Olga Stalgorova at a Jerusalem rally in support of Ukraine.

“Here, I can’t say we have had conflicts because of our nationalities,” Borysenko said, though she does wish there were more fellow Ukrainians around to compare notes with as the war wears on. “Sometimes, you need Ukrainians’ support, Ukrainians to discuss something with,” she explained. “You just need someone from your own community.”

Masa brought in mental-health professionals to consult with participants and to train its staff to facilitate discussions among the group.

And Guseva and Borysenko were among a dozen Ukrainians who met early on with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, sharing with him details of how their relatives and friends back home were faring.

Guseva shared with Bennett a 17-panel comic she drew that follows her decision to join her sister in Israel, the war’s outbreak and texting with loved ones in Ukraine, concluding with her relatives telling Guseva that they’re glad she’s safe in Israel.

Bennett read the strip, hugged her and said, “It’s mashehu,” a Hebrew word that is used to mean “something special.”

“It’s going to be OK,” he told her in a moment shared in a YouTube video. “It will.” (Guseva’s interaction with Bennett begins at 1:36 in the video below. She wears a yellow sweater.)

Like Guseva, Borysenko has utilized her professional skills during the crisis. An Israeli psychologist recruited her to volunteer on a telephone hotline that counsels people in Ukraine and those who have fled to neighboring countries.

She said she had advised callers, amid their chaotic lives, to focus on what they could control, like which sweater to wear and what to eat for breakfast.

But after a few weeks, Borysenko said, she stopped volunteering. The news from Ukraine, and being unable to reach her grandfather at times, “started to overwhelm me, and I thought it wouldn’t be ethically good to give people advice when I didn’t feel stability at that moment.”

Gazarkh, the marketer from St. Petersburg, said she feels caught in between.

Her husband, who is also in the Masa program, was born in Ukraine and moved to Russia as a baby; many of his relatives live in Ukraine: in Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia, a city in the southeast. His aunt and her two children are among the more than 7 million people who have fled the country so far.

But the international sanctions against Russia mean that Gazarkh cannot withdraw money from her Russian bank account via Israeli ATMs, wire money to Israel, or use credit cards. Her father fears that his pension payments’ value will dissipate.

Work by Valery Guseva, a graphic artist.

Work by Valery Guseva, a graphic artist.

As she spoke about this, she glanced at her Ukrainian friends and said she knows these challenges are small compared to what they are facing.

“I absolutely understand that it’s another level of problems,” Gazarkh said, “when Yulia and Lera are worried about their relatives living under bombing now.”

Borysenko, the Kyiv native, said she understands that many Russians are suffering under the international sanctions. Were she home in Ukraine, she said, she might be inclined “to hate all Russians,” but that impulse is tempered by having Russian friends in the Masa program.

“Being here, I’m not losing these pieces of humanity,” she said.

As Passover approached, Borysenko planned to join an Israeli friend at a Seder in a Jerusalem suburb. She’ll be thinking of a phone conversation she had a few days ago with a friend back in Kyiv, whose aunt remains hospitalized after being shot while fleeing a Russian attack.

It’s “a real example of how people try to get freedom,” Boryshenko said.

Hillel Kuttler writes on international affairs and the Jewish world. He can be reached at [email protected].

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