Current surge in ‘aliyah’ latest in rich history of Jews in Ukraine — Vivienne Myburgh

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) is assisting with the rescue of Jewish people in Ukraine where the war is fuelling a surge in numbers of people wanting to “make aliyah” [immigration of Jews to Israel].

I will share news on this aliyah surge as well as on opportunities to partner with the ICEJ in this urgent rescue campaign. But before I go there, here is a brief overview of the colourful history of the Jews in the Ukraine — including some highlights and lowlights.

Relived Ukranian Jews on an aliyah flight sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem

Early history and flourishing
Jews are believed to have settled in the Crimea and along the Black Sea coast from the fourth century AD/CE. The Rurik Prince Sviatoslav purloined Kyiv from the Khazars in the mid 10th century, and Jews soon began settling in the new capital of Kievan Rus and were known to have been welcomed into positions of influence by the Rurik dynasty.

By the time of Sviatoslav’s grandson, Yaroslav, The Wise, the Jewish community was of sufficient size for him to name one of the three fortified entrances into Kyiv that he built, the Jewish Gate.

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The onset of persecution
By the mid 17th century the Khmelnytsky Uprising had begun in Ukraine resulting in a 10-year onslaught against Jews and Catholics by the Cossacks and the Crimean Tatars.

In the late 18th century much of the Ukraine was included within the boundaries of Catherine the Great’s Pale of Settlement; a sprawling, underdeveloped expanse within the Russian Empire which was earmarked for Jews.

The onset of the 19th century witnessed increasing deadly pogroms led by the Cossacks against the Jews. It was particularly these ongoing persecutions that led to the birth of Zionism at the end of the 19th century, with Theodor Herzl playing a massive role in launching the appeal for a safe homeland for the Jewish people.     

Russian Revolution and World War II
Despite the persecutions, the Jewish community of the Ukraine had grown very populous and some major cities such as Odessa, Dnipro and Chernivtsi were around a third Jewish in their demography.  There were also four autonomous Jewish districts in the southern part of Ukraine and Crimea before World War ll.

Sadly, the early 20th century saw increasingly severe waves of pogroms, particularly between 1917 and 1921 when more than 1 000 pogroms took place, killing around 30 000 Jews. 

The location of World War II’s deadliest massacre, the slaughter of almost 34 000 Jews at the infamous Babyn Yar (Grandmothers Ravine) took place in September 1941. Approximately 100 000 Jews were killed at Baby Yar (aka Babi Yar) between 1941 and 1943. The huge Baby Yar memorial site has now been hit and damaged by a missile in the current war and Israel has pledged to help to restore it again. President Zelensky has also said that the Jews of the world will not be silent about it.

Ukrainian firefighters work to put out a blaze in a building in the Jewish cemetery located in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site on Monday. (PHOTO: State Emergency Service of Ukraine)

German troops killed approximately a further 50 000 Jewish people in the Odessa region, immediately after the 1941 Babyn Yar massacre.

It has been estimated that the death toll of Ukrainian Jews make up a quarter of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

BDS – Soviet style
Stalin disenfranchised the Jewish community further, removing synagogues and schools and banning Jewish people from job and education opportunities. The years of persecution and discrimination eventually resulted in a marked withering of the numbers of Jews living in the Ukraine, leaving just half a million by the time of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This number was all that was left from a community approaching 3 million immediately prior to World War II. About a quarter of this remnant emigrated throughout the remainder of the 1990s, as the door to freedom had been swung open.

The Jewish community of the Ukraine today
Some marked pro-Jewish shifts in public culture over the past decade have taken place.

2012 saw the opening of the Menorah Centre in Dnipro, comprising seven buildings layered together in the shape of a menorah. Reputed to be the largest Jewish centre in the world,It was built at a cost of $100 million, by Jewish billionaires Gennadiy Bogolyubov and Igor Kolomoisky. (It is seven buildings layered together in the shape of a Menorah).

In 2016 Volodomyr Groysman became Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister and Volodomyr Zelenskyy became Ukraine’s first Jewish President in 2019. Incidences of antisemitic attacks have also been declining. It is a challenge to determine Ukraine’s current Jewish population and estimates range from 49 000 to 400 000. Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola put the number at 49 000 in his World Jewish Population, 2019, while The European Jewish Congress estimates the number of Jews to be between 360 000 and 400 000. There are around 10 000 Jewish believers in the Ukraine with the largest Jewish Messianic congregation in the world in the nation’s capital, Kyiv.

The Ukraine was also the birthplace of the Hasidic movement of Jewish mysticism, founded by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (known as the Baal Shem Tov) which continues today and Klezmer music also finds its provenance in the Ukraine – together with a large component of the corpus of Yiddish literature and poetry.

There are a number of well-known Jews who have their roots in the Ukraine including Golda Meir, Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Leonard Bernstein, Sholem Aleichem (author of Fiddler on the Roof) and Noam Chomsky (the father of modern linguistics, a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science). 

Current rescue operation of Jews in Ukraine
The Jewish community are presently facing intense challenges and an uncertain future along with the rest of the people of Ukraine.

The ICEJ has been intensely involved with the Ukrainian Jewish community over the last three decades. Christians, through the ICEJ, have been responsible for funding approximately 50 000 Jews to make aliyah, a third of the almost 165 000 Jews who the ICEJ have helped to date.

Ukranian family getting ready to start a new life in Israel

The Jewish Agency responded to the present crisis by putting support systems in place to help Jews trying to get out of the Ukraine. They are also resourcing absorption centres to assist the current surge in aliyah. It is expected that at least 10 000 Ukranian Jews will make aliyah in the next few months and the ICEJ will be working closely with the Jewish Agency to support these immigrants with flights and support programmes in Israel as well.

There is also a surge in aliyah from Russia itself, with Israel not blocking incoming flights from Russia as many other nations have chosen to do.

The ICEJ has supported Ukrainian Aliyah with over $1000 000 over the last 12 months, with a third of the amount being transferred in the last few days due to the crisis presently.

We at the ICEJ have seen an almost open heaven of revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the times when aliyah has been at its height. The testimonies that are coming out of the Ukraine presently attest to this! 

Trust with us for an increased outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of the Church in the Ukraine at this time as we support and bring our Jewish family home!      

Ukrainian Jews Need Our Assistance

Your support for the ICEJ’s Ukrainian Aliyah Fund will provide:

Evacuation & Shelter — $850 per person to assist those fleeing and entering refugee/transit canters near the western border of Ukraine. Ukrainian Jews will be given sanctuary while they wait for transport to Israel.
Rescue Flights — $805 per person to assist with transportation by land and then by air, through a neighboring country to Israel
Emergency Housing & Care — $1,250 per person to cover emergency absorption costs in Israel. New olim (immigrants) will need to be given shelter and food for up to 3 months upon arrival in Israel

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