(JTA) — Tatyana Orul would have moved to Israel years ago if not for her job as a television journalist in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which interested her too much to give up.
But when bombs started falling next to her house last year, she reconsidered. The war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist forces in the region had also put her husband out of a job. The airport where he worked now lays in ruins.
Last week at a hotel in the Ukrainian capital, Orul and her husband waited with packed bags for the plane that would take them the next morning to Israel to begin a new life. She would leave behind her newly married son; Orul said Ukrainian law prohibits newly married couples from emigrating.
For Orul, Israel was the only place she and her husband could go.
“My soul is in Israel,” Orul, 55, said through a translator. “It’s a very practical state. It has very warm people. It’s our historic home. I have no home to return to – for now.”
Orul and her husband were two of about 100 Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel on a March 24 flight sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the charity run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Since its launch in December, IFCJ’s Ukraine operation has brought more than 500 Ukrainian Jews to Israel – four-fifths of them refugees from the east. The operation’s goal, says director Ofer Dahan, is not just to get Jews to Israel, but to help them stay there.
“To move to Israel, or a new country, or even a new house in the same neighborhood, is not easy,” Dahan told the immigrants at a briefing just a few hours before they departed for the airport. “So we offer you a network of absorption that will make it easier for you in the first days.”
The network includes a stipend of $1,000 per adult and $500 per child – in addition to the $17,000 that the Israeli government gives a Ukrainian immigrant family of four. The group also provides a head-hunting service that promises to find immigrants a job within three weeks and provides a phone number to call if they have questions. IFCJ follows up with the new arrivals a month after the move.
“The direction is to have them be more connected to the places they live,” Dahan told JTA on March 26. “When you’re connected to your community, your culture, your decision to leave or stay is easier.”
Many of the Ukrainians are steered toward towns in Israeli’s so-called periphery that have especially active immigrant absorption departments and substantial populations of fellow Ukrainians. More than two dozen Ukrainians who arrived on recent IFCJ flights were resettled in Ramla, a city south of Tel Aviv that is 30 percent immigrant and is home to 1,000 Ukrainians. Local authorities there provide the immigrants with additional assistance, including workshops on business entrepreneurship and civics, as well as tours across Israel at a token cost. The city also has Russian-speaking staff in municipal offices and schools, and psychologists are on hand to help the immigrants adjust.
“Ramla is a city that absorbs aliyah,” said Liron Carmeli, head of the city’s immigration and absorption division. “Our knowledge in dealing with aliyah comes from years of experience, especially with Russia, Ukraine and the Commonwealth of Independent States.”
Despite the assistance, life isn’t easy for the new arrivals. Many have left behind relatives and come with no Hebrew skills or familiarity with Israeli culture. The refugees from eastern Ukraine often have already migrated through other Ukrainian cities. Marina Eifchanker, who manages Ukrainian aliyah for IFCJ, said that couples on the verge of divorce usually split after moving to Israel.
“Aliyah is no small crisis,” she said. “Aliyah does not make anything easier. There are problems of language, housing. Kids go to school, don’t know a word of Hebrew. They were in a [refugee] camp for half a year, far away from everything.”
Before December, the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel were facilitated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped resettle 6,000 Ukrainian Jews in 2014. Some 1,400 others have come since January through the Jewish Agency, which also runs preparatory programs in Ukraine before departure and absorption services in Israel once they arrive.
IFCJ once was a major donor to the Jewish Agency. But in December, the fellowship split from the Jewish Agency, claiming that its bureaucracy made the immigration process too lengthy and that IFCJ’s support was not sufficiently acknowledged.
“In general, we consider it our responsibility to prepare immigrants for all aspects of life in Israel, teaching them Hebrew while they are still in Ukraine, ensuring that they are aware of their rights and benefits as immigrants, and helping them go through as much of the bureaucratic process as possible before they board the plane to Israel,” a Jewish Agency spokesman wrote in an email to JTA.
Some of the immigrants leaving Ukraine on March 24 had few illusions about how hard the transition would be. But having escaped a place where bombs were killing their neighbors, they were happy to move to a country where they felt welcome.
“When you open your eyes every morning and your place is ‘boom, boom, boom’ every time,” said Andrew Segal, 28, who left Donetsk last year, “if you have the possibility to leave this place, to go to a place where you are safe, you have to do this right this second.”