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Ukrainian Jewish refugees airlifted to safety

Sarah Judith Hofmann Tel Aviv, Israel
March 15, 2022

After President Zelenskyy urged Jews worldwide to "cry out," aid has begun to roll in for Ukrainian Jews. Many Jewish organizations are helping with evacuations in Ukraine.

An Israeli man helps a Ukranian refugee with a baby, as she hands him a toy in Tel Aviv airport
Ukrainian refugees fly into Tel Aviv via RomaniaImage: Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

Sixty large gift bags are crammed into Katie Gerenstein's bedroom in Tel Aviv. On each bag, there is a little greeting message in Ukrainian: "We hope that you like the gifts. Much love, hope and warmth, the Israeli friends of Ukraine from Tel Aviv." Along with a blue and yellow heart. They are Mishloach Manot, gifts traditionally given in Israel to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim.

For children, the gift usually consists of two sweets and a small toy. But Gerenstein has packed more. In each bag, there is, for example, a doll, a car or a plush toy, as well as stickers and a rucksack with a lunchbox and water bottle.

The donations mainly came from contacts amongst her family and friends, via daycare centers and social media. The Mishloach Manot are meant for 60 orphans who arrived in Israel from Ukraine last week. "I kept thinking about those kids coming into a new country, not speaking the language with all the traumas that they have been through and not having anything that's theirs. Not having had the time to pack their favorite teddy or their favorite toy," says Gerenstein.

Gift bags in Katie Gerenstein's apartment in Tel Aviv
Katie Gerenstein is hoping the gifts with put a smile on the faces of the Jewish orphansImage: Sarah Hofmann/DW

Aircraft waiting for people

The 35-year-old, who has three daughters of her own, has not been able to stop thinking about the war ever since Russian troops marched into Ukraine. That is when she came up with the idea of organizing gifts for Purim. It is a time when Israeli Jews traditionally collect donations for the needy.

Jewish aid organizations say that there were up to 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. The estimates tend to vary widely depending on how Jewish communities define who is Jewish.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the only Jewish president in the world outside Israel. About a week ago, he appealed to Jews around the world to "cry out." He said it was important not to remain silent in the face of the attacks on the country's Jewish population and sites of historical significance to the Jews.

About 7,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Israel since the start of the Russian invasion. Most of them are not Jewish. Over the past few days, there have been repeated protests at the sending back of some non-Jewish Ukrainians to Europe. Now those who have relatives with Israeli citizenship, will, at least, be able to stay for the time being. 

Up to now, a few hundred Ukrainian Jews have made aliyah. In Hebrew, that means "ascent" or "going up" and is the term used to describe Jewish emigration to Israel. If the Jewish Agency, which is in charge of Jewish emigration to Israel, has its way, they will be followed by tens of thousands more Ukrainian Jews in the coming weeks and months.

At a press conference a few days ago, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Yaakov Hagoel, said, "We will organize aircraft to wait for people instead of having people wait for aircraft."

The Jewish Agency have just set up several emigration offices close to the border with Ukraine. The idea is to speed up a process that usually takes months.

A Ukranian refugee from Kyiv walks off the aircraft in Tel Aviv
Not all Ukrainian refugees have been allowed to stay in IsraelImage: Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

Childhood home under bombardment

Several family members of Jenny Havemann recently arrived in Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency. Havemann was herself born in the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. Now she lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv. 

An aunt and an uncle managed to escape from Kyiv with their children at the last minute when it was already being said that the city had been surrounded. Another aunt arrived in Israel from Dnipro with her children. With about one million inhabitants, Dnipro is the fourth biggest city in Ukraine after Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa.

"It is very painful to see the city where you spent your childhood now being bombarded. For the people there it's a tragedy," she says.

Havemann, too, refers to the special history of the Jews in Ukraine. "In Ukraine there is so much Jewish history. It is painful that this is now being destroyed. That hurts. My great grandparents lost most members of their family in the Shoah."

Woman bids farewell to male relative
Jewish refugees being evacuated from Dnipro are forced to leave their loved ones behind Image: Shiurei Tora Lubavitch

Evacuation from Dnipro

Jenny Havemann's family has been actively involved with the Jewish community in Dnipro. Her mother helped to set up the Jewish school there. Ten years ago, her uncle, Dan Makogon, set up the Menorah Center, which is housed in seven different buildings – and includes a Jewish youth organization, a kosher hotel, kosher restaurants and other businesses.

Dan Makogon is still in Dnipro. Together with a team of 30 staff he runs an emergency call center there and is trying to ensure that all members of the Jewish community — some 6,000 people — are evacuated from the city.

Via Whatsapp he sends his niece voice messages for DW: "Every day, as early as 5 or 6 a.m., we get panic-stricken calls from people throughout Ukraine asking for help," he says.

According to Makogon, Dnipro is relatively quiet apart from the air raid sirens, which force the population to seek out air raid shelters several times a day. "On the one hand, we are mightily proud of him," says Havemann. "But we are, of course. very worried about him, too."

Dan Makagon
Dan Makogon is head of the Ukrainian aid organization Shiurei Tora Lubavitch in DniproImage: Shiurei Tora Lubavitch

Help from JDC in New York

A number of Jewish aid organizations are active in Ukraine at the moment. One of them is JDC, the biggest Jewish aid organization in the world. It's better known as the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or just Joint, and is headquartered in New York.

The Jewish-American organization was set up in 1914. And it helped tens of thousands of Jews to flee from Germany after the Nazis seized power. At the end of the Holocaust, Joint looked after survivors in displaced person camps.

In the 1990s, the committee helped to rebuild Jewish communities in Ukraine and helped to support the needy amongst them. "These services that we created for three decades are now activated to help each other in times of need," says Michael Geller from the JDC in New York.

"We have hundreds of home care workers for tens of thousands of people. They are risking their lives, spending the nights at the homes of some elderly. Distributing foods and water. In other places prioritizing the most vulnerable. People that are homebound. Throughout the country, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, Mariupol, also in small towns.”

Woman and girl having their papers checked outside as they await evacuation
The aid organization Shiurei Tora Lubavitch is helping refugees out of DniproImage: Shiurei Tora Lubavitch

US donations

Together with other Jewish organizations they have so far managed to get some 7,000 Ukrainian Jews across the border to Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania. The JDC has managed to collect $30 million in donations for Ukraine in the last few weeks.

"The idea of giving and helping is really at the base of Judaism," says Katie Gerenstein, who grew up in London and emigrated to Israel in 2009. "In Jewish teaching, it is requested that you give 10% of your salary every month to help other people."

Katie Gerenstein hopes that the gifts will help distract the children a little from what they have gone through. "I hope it puts a smile on their face and that for the moment they can just be a child again after all that they have been through. Innocent, young, happy, children squabbling over who got what and enjoying hopefully what's in their package."

This article was originally written in German.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer