Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Nonetheless, Jews continue to leave the eastern regions, citing ongoing military activity, economic distress, and general apprehension about the future.  The routes that they take to leave the area reflect instability on the ground.  Some cross the border into nearby Russia by bus, travel north, and then cross the border back into Ukraine destined for Kharkiv, which is a short drive from Russia.  If they wish to go to Israel, they then go to Dnipropetrovsk to the Mayak transit center (see below), where they complete an application and orientation process.  Others manage to reach Mariupol, a Sea of Azov port city just outside the separatist area, where they can board a public intercity bus for a 22-hour ride to Dnipropetrovsk.  Whichever route they take, many departing Jews depend on local Protestants for assistance of various kinds, including trans-portation, border crossings, and intervention with local militia groups demanding bribes for safe passage.[71]

 

In a stay of a month or longer at the Mayak (Маяк, lighthouse) center, a resort with a capacity of 80 people that is rented by the Jewish Agency, Jews are interviewed, provided with information about Israel, and enrolled in Hebrew and Jewish identity classes.  Those with relatives already in Israel establish contact with these family members.  Their Jewish ancestry is confirmed, Israel entry visas are issued, and plans for their absorption in Israel are arranged.  They then fly to Israel on flights leaving from Dnipropetrovsk.  Some of the Mayak guests, said Ms. Nabitovsky and Mr. Lurie, are in such shock from their experiences in the separatist areas and their harrowing departures across the border that they may be unable to participate in any formal activities at the center for several weeks.  Instead, they remain in their assigned rooms, emerging only for meals.  Trained JAFI professionals work with them until they are able to join others in the normal routine of the center and consider the various aliyah (immigration) options available to them.

 

The writer spoke with several individuals at the Mayak center awaiting flights to Israel.  A couple from Donetsk (seen at far right in the photo on the opposite page) described heavy weapons in the streets of their hometown, endless Russian propaganda on local television claiming that the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian armed forces are fascists, and no income.  As a former Ukrainian Master of Sport in judo, the man was entitled to receive a pension for his sports achievements as well as a retirement pension, but he was receiving neither.  His wife, an economist, lost her job.  Realizing that continued residence in Donetsk was no longer possible, they had enrolled in a Donetsk ulpan before leaving the city en route to Israel.  They were headed for Netanya in Israel, a coastal city where the woman's sister was already attending an Israeli ulpan.  In response to a question, the couple said that they had three adult children.  The eldest, a nurse who remains in Donetsk for the time being, probably will join them in Israel in the near future.  A son had moved to Russia; they did not know what he would do in the future.  Their youngest, another daughter, was in a tragic situation, they said; she had married a Jordanian and moved to Kuwait with him.  Subsequently, they divorced, and the former husband was awarded full custody of their children.  The daughter had no rights at all regarding her own children.  She remained in Kuwait in the hope that she might see them sometime.  The couple expressed gratitude to the Jewish Agency for the support that they were receiving and embarrassment that they were dependent upon charity.

 

A young man (second from left in photo below) had been a student at an engineering college in Luhansk.  The college was heavily damaged by bombardment; as prospective engineers, the students attempted to repair the structure themselves, but were unsuccessful.  They lived "for months" without electricity or water; they used construction materials from damaged buildings to build fires in the street, which they used for heat and cooking.  However, it was very difficult to find food.  He saw dead bodies in the street.  The young man said that his mother lived in Kyiv, but he was not planning to join her; he did not mention his father.  He planned to go to Carmiel in northern Israel, where his grand-father, an uncle, and some Luhansk friends live.  He hopes to finish his college program at an Israeli institution.

 

The writer spoke with four individuals, right, who were staying at the Mayak center while preparing for aliyah to Israel.  See text for more information.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

A qualified construction engineer in Donetsk, a woman (at far left in photo above) had nonetheless worked for some years as a personal secretary because salaries for personal secretaries were higher than compensation for engineers.  She planned to join her daughter in Petach Tikvah, where the daughter had settled several years ago.

 

In addition to working with internally displaced Jews who want to relocate to Israel, the Jewish Agency continues to maintain its full range of programs and services for local Jews, said Ms. Nabitovsky and Mr. Lurie.    It operates Sunday schools for children, along with parallel classes for parents.  Responding to increased demand, JAFI has opened additional ulpans (Hebrew language classes supplemented by Jewish identity-building programs) in different Jewish population centers, including several relatively small towns.  Reflecting adverse local conditions, ulpan students now are more diligent than previously; clearly, they are serious about emigration to Israel. 

 

The Jewish Agency is pursuing a policy of cooperation and collaboration with various partners in order to reach more people and stretch resources as far as possible.  It operates day camps during school vacation periods, usually in partnership with local synagogues.  It collaborates in various programs with Nativ, the Israeli government entity that deals with Russian-speaking Jews.[72]  It also works with local Jewish day schools in holiday programs and other activities.

 

JAFI continues to operate its own summer camps, but local instability has generated considerable parental unease about sending children to Ukrainian locations far away from home [73] and about paying camp fees in advance.  Another summer program is a camp in Israel for 30 youngsters from Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.    Na'aleh and Selah, the Israel-based high school and university programs respectively, continue to attract local adolescents and college-age Ukrainians, most of whom perceive these programs as pre-aliyah gateways to new lives in Israel. 

 

The Jewish Agency supports certain grassroots activities by local Jewish young adults. Taglit (birthright Israel) remains very popular among Jewish young people;  together with Nativ and Hillel, JAFI operates programs for Taglit alumni.   Working with Nativ, JAFI sponsored a Masa fair, showcasing Russian-language Masa programs, as well as programs in other languages that are open to participants who are fluent in those tongues.[74] Masa, said Ms. Nabitovsky, is perceived by many local Jewish young adults as a preparatory year in Israel prior to aliyah.  Some Masa programs are geared toward people in specific professional fields, such as information technology or medicine.  However, she continued, several of the more complex Masa courses require participant co-payments, which many of them cannot afford; therefore, they enroll in other, less expensive programs that may be their second or third choice.[75]

 

Responding to budgetary pressures, the Jewish Agency has been forced to curtail placement of Israelis in emissary (shlichim) positions; such emissaries require housing and travel allowances, school fees for children, insurance, and other expenditures.  Thus, Ms. Nabitovsky and Mr. Lurie are the only Israelis representing the Jewish Agency in all of eastern Ukraine.  Local Jews employed as JAFI staff have been trained to assume many emissary responsibilities, and mobile aliyah teams of Israeli professionals visit communities periodically to organize seminars on youth/young adult programs in Israel, manage holiday celebrations (such as Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day), and perform other tasks that cannot be done by the Dnipropetrovsk- based couple or by local staff.  Mr. Lurie observed that many potential immigrants do not fully accept the authority of local staff, perceiving them as lacking credibility because they have never actually lived in Israel.

 

 

 

32.  The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint, JDC) also maintains its eastern Ukraine regional headquarters office in the Menorah Center.  It is a very convenient and "efficient" location, said Yoni Leifer, the JDC regional director, noting that the Menorah Center also houses the JDC hesed[76] and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki's office.

 

Joint currently serves 19,000 clients in the region, Mr. Leifer stated, providing material support to all of them.  The support is extended through debit cards, hesed-based programs, and home health care assistance for people who are disabled.  Food items and medicines no longer are distributed as their handling has proved too expensive, continued Mr. Leifer.  JDC classifies its clients in three categories: (1) victims of Nazi persecution and thus eligible for funds from the Conference on Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference); (2) World War II veterans and thus eligible for govern-ment bonuses; and (3) people who are ineligible for any special benefits.  In all, said Mr. Leifer, about 35 percent of JDC clients in the region receive Claims Conference funding, a percentage that has decreased over the years as Holocaust survivors die.  The Claims Conference supplements provide recipients with resources three times greater than those available to non-recipients.

 

Yoni Leifer, who previously headed JDC operations in Belarus and Kaliningrad, became director of JDC in southeastern Ukraine in late 2013.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

Of the total 19,000 JDC clients in the region, 7,000 to 8,000 reside in Dnipropetrovsk itself, and about 5,000 still live in the conflict zone (Donetsk and Luhansk areas).  The remainder reside in smaller cities, such as Zaporizhzhya.[77]  About 350 internally displaced Jews in the region receive benefits and services from Joint, Mr. Leifer added.

The local economic situation is dire, stated Mr. Leifer.  The average pension several years ago was about $200 monthly, he said; inflation has reduced its value to about $45 now.  The cost of food has increased 150 to 200 percent, and the cost of medicine now is 200 to 300 percent higher than in the recent past.  Pensioners try to purchase food and rarely have enough funds to buy medicine.  Hearing aids and cataract surgery are extremely difficult to finance, Mr. Leifer said.  JDC aid helps pensioners in alleviating some distress, but cannot restore the dignity that is offered by a healthy economy.

 

Regarding working-age people, the middle class has disappeared, said Mr. Leifer.  Beyond the extraordinary inflation that has so degraded income, the loss of Crimean beaches to Russia has dealt a severe psychological blow to the middle class for whom a vacation at a Crimean beach resort was regarded as almost a guaranteed annual right.  Comparable beaches in Bulgaria or Greece are just too expensive, stated Mr. Leifer.

 

In many cities and towns closer to the conflict zone, the economic situation is even worse, Mr. Leifer said.  Non-residents are afraid to visit these places, so inter-city trade has diminished.  Contact with the remainder of Ukraine has been reduced.  In the conflict zone itself, some people continue to work, but few are paid; they cling to the unlikely belief that somehow better days will come quickly and they will be compensated for lost income.

 

 

33.  After transferring the location of its eastern Ukraine Consulate from Dnipropetrovsk to Kharkiv in 2012, the Government of Israel re-opened its Dnipropetrovsk representation with a part-time Consul commuting from Kyiv in 2013.  In 2015, it reinstated the position of a fulltime Consul in Dnipropetrovsk.  In addition to performing conventional consular duties, the Consulate also operates an Israel Cultural Center.

 

The most visible responsibility of the Israel Consulate is verification of a potential immigrant's right to settle in Israel under the provisions of the Israel Law of Return.  If an individual qualifies, that is, if the applicant has at least one Jewish grandparent or is a first-degree relative of someone with at least one Jewish grandparent, the Consulate will issue a visa to that individual and his/her family, enabling them to proceed to the Jewish state and begin a settlement/absorption process.  Due to the various upheavals that afflicted Ukraine during the last 100 years, many applicants lack formal proof of Jewish ancestry.  The Consulate investigates all claims, a process that may require several months.

 

A senior official of the Consulate stated that priority for consideration of visa application is given to individuals from the conflict area, particularly Donetsk, and other people whose homes are some distance from Dnipropetrovsk, such as in Mariupol and Kramatorsk.  Almost by definition, such individuals are living in local hotels, hostels, or with other families as the distance between their former residences and the Consulate is too great for a regular commute.  The official estimated that between 80 and 85 percent of all Dnipropetrovsk visa applicants are from these eastern or southern regions.

 

Regarding programs of the Israel Cultural Center, the official mentioned Israel holiday celebrations, often in cooperation with other groups, such as the Jewish Agency and/or Rabbi Kaminezki.   The Consulate also hosts lecturers and artists from Israel;  some of its  lectures concern the Israeli economy, medical system, technology, and other subjects of interest to potential immigrants. It operates two ulpan classes in Dnipropetrovsk and one in Zaporizhzhya. Its Scout program, a version of the Israeli Scouts, enrolls 100 youth from Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Krivoi Rog, and Melitopol; for most participants, the Scout program is their only connection to Israel or to Jewish life in general.  The Consulate also recruits young people to various study programs in Israel and offers several Na'aleh (high school) and Sela (university) programs sponsored by the Israeli government.  Dnipropetrovsk has developed a nascent information technology sector, said the official, that produces some well-qualified candidates for IT education and Israeli IT companies.

 

In response to a question about the general mood in Dnipropetrovsk, the official stated that a sense of uncertainty prevails; people are concerned about the economy, the military situation, and various social forces.  People felt more secure when Dnipropetrovsk oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky was governor, he said; they were confident that Mr. Kolomoisky could protect them.  The new governor is unknown.  No one knows what to do, no one is planning for the future.

 


[71] Most local Protestant supporters work at the direction of European-based Christian groups that focus on assisting Jews.  Ukrainian Protestants are a small minority within the Ukrainian population; most Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians.  Ukrainian Protestant drivers of vans and other vehicles transporting Jews to and across borders of the quasi-republics often claim to various inspectors that they are conveying their passengers to Christian religious conferences and festivals.  If local militias suspect that the passengers are Jews trying to leave the country,  they will search the passengers and vehicles for jewels, antique Jewish ritual objects, or other precious materials that might be sold in various markets.  The Christian volunteers, said Mr. Lurie, know backroads in the area and usually are successful in evading checkpoints.  Once outside the contested areas, passengers are transferred to taxis that take them directly to the Mayak center.

[72] Nativ operates Israeli consulates and Israel culture centers in four Ukrainian cities. See pages 14 and 17 for descriptions of Nativ operations in Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv respectively.   The Kyiv representative focused on general observations, not Nativ, and the writer was unable to go to Odesa, where the fourth Ukraine ICC is located.

[73] The Jewish Agency does not own its own campsites. It rents premises from private sources.

[74] Masa programs are five to 12 months in length.They offer study, volunteer, and internship experiences in Israel for young adults. Groups of Masa participants live together in apartments and buy and prepare their own food.

[75] Ms. Nabitovsky and Mr. Lurie noted that all Israel-based programs for youth and young adults include a disproportionately large number of Ukrainian Jewish young men seeking to evade Ukrainian army service.

[76] See page 9.

[77] See page 18.

 
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