By Maya Shoham, Director Hadera-Eiron and Southeast Consortium
Since its establishment in 1929, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), among other functions, has played a vital role in the return of the Jews to their historical homeland of the Jewish people. JAFI’S unit for Aliyah, Absorption, and Special Missions leads the process of assisting those who are entitled to and who wish to come and live in Israel. The unit also provides an initial response to crisis situations in the Jewish world.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, JAFI has deployed teams in neighboring countries bordering Ukraine and has become one of the leading organizations in helping refugees in general. In this context, I was called to participate in the operation in Hungary, and to lead a delegation of American and Israeli volunteers, all of whom speak Russian and/or Ukrainian, in assisting Ukrainian-Jewish refugees.
In most cases, I encountered refugees who made a momentary decision to leave Ukraine, their home. After a considerable time in the shelter or due to a particularly violent bombing, they left their lives behind, took whatever they could, and, whether, by car, train, or bus, they set off for the border. At the border crossings, representatives of the various humanitarian organizations waited for them. By order of the Ukrainian government, men aged 18-60 are candidates for recruitment to their Army and are not allowed to leave the country. Therefore, so many of the refugees are women with children and older adults.
Representatives of the State of Israel and JAFI are working at the borders to check who is eligible for immigration to Israel and who is interested in doing so. Those people are then referred to hotels rented by JAFI for this purpose. There, an expedited consular process is carried out and after the approval of all parties, they fly to Israel to start building a new life while waiting for their family members who are left behind.
My responsibility was at a hotel in Budapest. My team of volunteers received the refugees who came from the border, provided them with food, beds, basic products, counseling and guidance, activities for children, youth, and adults, information about Israel and the Aliyah process, and especially a lot of warmth, love and listening to their stories about the life they left behind.
Many of us hear less and less in the media about the situation in Ukraine. Since I just returned, I can say firsthand that the war is in full swing. And the victims of the war are still out there. Just a few days ago parents arrived with their two teenage children who left behind a grocery store that supported them. They put everything they could in the car and escaped because they could no longer live with the constant noise and fear of planes and bombs.
A day after I arrived, I met a young mother of a lovely 11-month-old baby who said her private home, the two cars, and the girl's stroller, were all wiped out by the bombing. She spent two months with the baby alone in the basement, with cold burns on her arms. She decided to set off with only the girl's clothes in her possession. She came to us hysterical, with red eyes, and we can see how much weight she lost. You could see that the baby was clinging to her and not ready to go to strangers, crying a lot, not calm at all. Slowly the team gained the mother's trust. Slowly we calmed her down and gave her a sense of security. She could finally give her baby food and not just breastfeed her. We sent her for medical treatment. And we also managed to make her smile. The happiness when she received the baby's travel document for Israel is evident on her face in the attached photo.
I have a picture in my head, one I saw with my own eyes and did not take out the camera to capture. I am catching some fresh air outside the hotel and see a woman leaving the hotel and heading towards her fancy Lexus car. She opens the trunk with the car's remote control and all the contents of her house are revealed to my eyes. Piles of clothes, rugs, microwave, anything she could cram in under an atmosphere of running away. It was symbolic, scary, and sad. The thought what are you taking with you, what will you need? What is important? For how long? Will anything remain if you do not take it?
I am ashamed to say that I returned exhausted from such a meaningful endeavor. At the same time, I returned proud, not only of my country and the organization I work for, but also of our ability, as a Jewish people, to unite forces, and take care of each other. Our activity across all borders, led by Israel and the Jewish Agency, is carried out with extraordinary cooperation and coordination of all the prominent Jewish organizations – American Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Federations of North America, and the local Jewish communities.
I came back with the clear knowledge that, "All Israel is responsible for each other." And this is not only a value we teach and speak of, but in the operation that is taking place these days within the borders of Ukraine, and in secret rescue operations within Ukraine, this is in fact the value being carried out.
So, if you know in your Jewish community, people who speak Russian and/or Ukrainian fluently, who are interested to travel for 10 days (in the near future) and believe they are physically and mentally able to take on this experience, we will be happy to recruit them for this important mission.
Together with JFNA and JAFI this mission is largely funded. Interested volunteers can register here: https://www.tfaforms.com/4972244