KIEV, Ukraine – The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), which has helped thousands of Ukraine Jews immigrate to Israel, was flooded with hundreds of phone calls and emails in the past two weeks from Ukraine Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel and expects the demand to grow amid escalating tensions with Russia over Crimea and the eastern Donbass province.
In total, The Fellowship has received more than 1,700 inquiries about aliyah (immigration to Israel) in the past month in Ukraine, where The Fellowship also provides one of the world's poorest Jewish communities with life-saving assistance such as food and medicine.
With the Ukraine situation increasingly unstable, The Fellowship’s office in Kiev has opened six phone lines that are constantly busy, fielding 720 calls in the past month, while staff has received more than 1,000 emails about aliyah. There are an estimated 260,000 Jews still living in Ukraine, and The Fellowship says there are about 5,000 Jews in the disputed Donbass region who are eligible to make aliyah.
Since December 2014, The Fellowship has led a major immigration effort that has brought more than 3,280 Jews on 27 flights from Ukraine to Israel. Ukrainian-Jewish aliyah has become a major part of the Fellowship’s global aliyah initiative enabling Jews facing economic and security threats to move to Israel. In recent months, The Fellowship has helped nearly 4,000 Jews make aliyah, not only from Ukraine but from other countries where Jews face economic and security challenges including Bolivia, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Venezuela and Turkey and other countries.
Because of military checkpoints and attacks, many poor Ukraine Jews in the cities of Donestk and Lunhansk in the Donbass region remain unable to reach Ukraine to collect their already meager monthly state pension of some $40. Tensions have been rising between Ukraine forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and Crimea since July, and the Jewish community is caught in the middle.
The Fellowship reports that pro-Russian forces have been shelling the disputed eastern province of Donbass, with scores of attacks over the past several days. The Fellowship says local authorities in Donbass detained and jailed a Jewish communal official who also helped The Fellowship administer its local humanitarian programs, before sending the Jewish official west to the Ukraine capital of Kiev.
The rising interest in aliyah among Ukraine’s Jews comes as Ukraine says its forces last week were put on high alert as Russia massed 40,000 troops along the Crimea-Ukraine border, with both sides accusing one another of raising tensions ahead of the 25th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Pro-Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014, in a violent conflict that has cost thousands casualties.
“The plight of the Jewish people in Ukraine is deteriorating,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of The Fellowship. “Our support for them will mean the difference between life and death, whether we’re providing critical aid such as food and medicine or helping those who wish to immigrate to Israel.”