They streamed off the shuttle buses into Terminal One of Ben-Gurion Airport, amid loud Hebrew music and green-clad soldiers waving Israeli flags.
Chatting in Russian, the new immigrants, many of them refugees from the ongoing civil war in Ukraine’s industrial east, arrived here seeking a new life in the Jewish state.
More than 5,000 Ukrainian Jews have immigrated over the past year, seeking a refuge from the shelling, shortages and anarchy that have characterized eastern Ukraine and decimated the communities of the Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have waged an increasingly violent war against Kiev’s rule.
Many have also fled to other cities within Ukraine itself and even over the border to Russia.
Some 1,310 Jews have come from Donetsk and Luhansk, the central population centers of Donbas, between January and November, an increase of a thousand percent over the same period in 2013, according to the Jewish Agency.
“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice on it,” thundered Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in Psalmic greetings from a podium in the terminal, after the immigrants had all entered.
Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, paid for Monday’s flight, which he intends to be the first of many bringing Ukrainians to Israel, possibly as often as once a month.
Eckstein has poured millions into Ukraine since the start of the insurgency earlier this year, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Chabad hassidic movement and other groups, to provide aid to internally displaced Ukrainian Jews.
In early August, Eckstein said he would be bringing three planeloads of immigrants to Israel within a matter of weeks, but the flights failed to materialize, with the American-born rabbi later admitting it would take some time to arrange the logistics of such an undertaking.
In October, the IFCJ announced the formation of a new immigration program to be run by Eli Cohen, the former head of the agency’s aliya department, who would bring the necessary expertise to implement the flights.
The announcement came amid tensions between Eckstein and the agency, and although both organizations were represented at Monday’s events, the future of the two organizations’ relationship is unclear.
While the IFCJ is cutting its contributions to the agency, Cohen and other figures have stated that “the whole intention is cooperation.”
For the second day in a row, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made reference to anti-Semitism in Europe, telling new immigrants at the Canada Center in Jerusalem on Monday evening that this was one of the reasons for the spike in aliya that brought the largest number of immigrants to the country in 10 years.
There are two reasons – one good and the other bad – for the 35% spike in immigration from last year that brought 25,000 immigrants, most of them from the West, to Israel in 2014, Netanyahu said at a Hanukka candlelighting ceremony.
The negative cause of aliya, he said, was the increase in anti-Semitism in the world.
“We see this, for example, in Europe, where there is a wave of anti-Semitism caused by a growing Islamization, and the Jews understand that Israel is the secure home for all Jews in the world.”
But there is another reason as well for the rise in immigration, he said, and that is because “Israel is a good place to live.”
Netanyahu cited statistics released on Monday noting a drop in unemployment, making Israel – he said – the country with almost the lowest unemployment rate in the West.
“I want to congratulate you for deciding to take your fate into your hands and join it with the national fate of all of us. You have done a great thing, and I salute you,” he said.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky noted that 2014 was the first year ever where the majority of immigrants came from the West, “from the free world.” The reason for that choice, he said, was their desire to “live at home.”
Sharansky called on the government to continue providing budgets for immigration and absorption, even during times of fights over budgets, because next year, he said, there is expected to be another increase in immigration, especially from France and Ukraine.
Some 226 immigrants, over 150 of them from the battle zone, were on Monday’s flight and more are expected next week, Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post.
“This is a historic day not just for the olim [immigrants] themselves but for the people of Israel, because it reaffirms the fact that there is no such thing as a Jewish refugee today,” he said.
“There may be war in Ukraine and people are fleeing, and we are taking care of them for the time, but they always have a place to call home, and I am privileged to be a part of this whole movement.
“This [flight] was full and so we had to charter a second flight for a week from now… and then we hope to continue this every month. As long as there are people who want to come, we will do as many chartered flights as needed, so that every Jew who wants to come home can do so.”
The organization, which is primarily funded through contributions by Christian donors, is giving a grant of $1,000 per adult, and $500 per child, to those who come on its chartered flights, the fellowship’s Rubi Alfi-Nissan said.
“People are coming here with nothing. A lot of people lost everything. They don’t have savings. Some of them left without a winter coat. So we are giving them financial support so they can have a better start here in Israel and [so as to] help them land on their feet,” he said.
Earlier this year, the government approved a measure that would provide escapees from high-risk areas such as eastern Ukraine with a NIS 15,000 grant over and above the standard absorption basket, as well as vocational aid.
While some refugees have returned to their homes in Donbas, many are coming to realize that returning to their homes is not an option at present. Over the last several months many internally displaced Jews have asserted their desire to return to their homes, but the severe winter, lack of heat and water, and food shortages in many rebel areas have precluded repatriation. The general economic malaise in Ukraine has prevented many internally displaced persons from successful resettlement within their own country as well.
Speaking to the Post in September during a visit to Dnipropetrovsk, Sharansky said that while many Ukrainian Jews are “still trying to gain some time and to postpone the decision… it’s also clear on all the levels that they will have no choice in this decision” but to emigrate, and predicted a 400% increase in aliya.
A native of Donetsk, Sharansky was beaming during the ceremony as he ran into old friends and schoolmates whom he had known as a child.
“Not only from my city but from my school. They said that it’s still the best in the town, whatever that means today,” he said.
Igor and Olga Golod were among those who came on the flight.
They recalled one morning in June when, after sleeping in their bomb shelter, they awoke to the familiar sound of explosions and gunshots. It was 7 a.m., and they were waiting for a pause in the firing before they left their house and a life they will never know again.
As soon as the shooting stopped, they quickly fled their home in Donetsk, leaving behind their parents, who didn’t have the power to escape, their two dogs and all of their belongings, except for some clothing.
“We had to go through three checkpoints to get out, and at each one the terrorists were examining everyone who passed,” said Olga, referring to pro-Russian fighters.
“We could finally breathe once we reached the Ukrainian checkpoint, where we felt safe.”
For the last six months, the Golods have been living with relatives in Dnipropetrovsk, the second largest Jewish community in Ukraine after Kiev. They originally went there to bring their 17-year-old son to a Jewish summer camp, but they never returned.
“We were waiting for the situation in Donetsk to change,” said Igor, sitting in a hotel conference hall in Kiev, at an aliya seminar attended by more than 100 other Jewish refugees from war-torn parts of eastern Ukraine.
“That’s why we’re here, the Jewish Agency is here, and the minister of aliya and absorption is here,” Eckstein told the new immigrants at a Hanukka candlelighting ceremony in Kiev last week. “We’re all here to take care of you, and we promise that you’ll have the ability to succeed in Israel.”
The Golods have never been to Israel, and don’t speak Hebrew, but they are absolutely sure that their life in the Jewish state will be better than in Donetsk.
“It is impossible to live there,” said Igor, 37, who had dreamed of making aliya one day, but planned to do it once he and his wife retired. Before their life was turned upside down, Igor worked for the government tax office, and Olga ran her own travel agency. Both stopped working in June, when their home became a war zone.
“Nothing works there,” said Olga.
“Many of my friends’ homes were destroyed. There are armed people on the streets, and no police to call if something happens to you. The situation is so bad because there are people who support Russia, and people who support Ukraine, and if pro-Russian militants hear that you support Ukraine, they can kill you.”
Aliya has been up even among those not directly affected by the violence, with economic factors a significant impetus for migration.
Jenya and Yulia Shefter are from Dnipopretrovsk, which has managed to remain clear of the fighting that’s destroyed other parts of eastern Ukraine. Before the war, Jenya, 34, had been working for five years as a regional marketing and sales manager for a major international electronic company. His wife was an engineer for a government telephone company.
They made good money, owned a home, and sent their 10-year-old daughter to a Jewish school. Within weeks of the crisis beginning, the company that Jenya worked for closed its regional office, and the government laid off 70% of Yulia’s colleagues, herself included.
“We’re leaving because of the economic situation,” said Jenya, days before he, his wife, parents and daughter boarded the IFCJ flight to Israel. He acknowledged that making aliya, for him and many other Ukrainians, was a decision of the head, not the heart.
At the airport in Tel Aviv on Monday, Eckstein personally greeted the 226 passengers of the first flight, hugging them as they came off the plane, and singing “Shalom Aleichem.”
“Today is a very emotional day for all of us,” he said in Hebrew.
The agency said it was “deeply appreciative of the IFCJ’s valuable contribution to the overall aliya effort led by the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel. The 200 new immigrants from Ukraine arriving aboard this flight join more than 4,900 Ukrainian Jews who have made aliya so far this year and are already building their new lives in Israel. We all look forward to the IFCJ’s continued involvement in this effort to bring Ukrainian Jews home.”