It was a chilly day at the end of the winter. The wind was blowing and the tent sheets were flapping. Some refugees arrived from the war zone in small family groups, while others came on their own carrying a few plastic bags containing their remaining possessions. The glazed looks on their faces revealed a hint of the hardship they endured since the war broke out. It was early spring of 2022, and the stories from the frontline were hard to believe. It was unfathomable that Europe once again became a war zone in the 21st century.
When they crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border, the first thing the refugees saw was the Israeli flag, with its blue and white stripes and Star of David in the centre, blowing in the strong wind. It was the first tent among dozens erected to shelter those who escaped from the horrors of the war.
The Jewish Agency was one of the first organizations to operate on the ground once President Putin declared war on neighbouring Ukraine. They initially opened a hotline in Jerusalem to provide information and comfort for thousands of Jews looking to leave Ukraine. The Jewish community in Ukraine, which is estimated to be as high as 200,000, was facing an emergency, and the entire Jewish world was there to help. Almost immediately after the war started, five transit camps were established by the Jewish Agency in neighbouring countries. All Jewish refugees who fled were offered temporary shelter at a three- or four-star hotel in order to rest, seek medical treatment, and obtain information about making Aliya to Israel. With the help of Keren Hayesod, Jewish Federations of North America, and donors around the world, Ukrainian Jews felt incredibly supported in this uncertain time.
Under the leadership of the Jewish Agency’s CEO, Amira Aharonoviz, COO Yehuda Setton, and hundreds of volunteers and employees on the ground, the mission was to focus on one joint goal—to rescue and save as many Ukrainian Jews as possible from the horror of the war.
The Canadian Jewish community rushed to assist. Adam Minsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and Linda Frum, Chair of UJA’s Board of Directors, led a contingent that travelled to Poland four weeks after the start of the war. Not only did this group contribute monetary donations, but also brought dozens of bags of toys, warm clothes, and other supplies for those who left everything behind. The beauty of the Jewish people was on full display. When an emergency occurs in any part of the world, from Ethiopia to Ukraine, the Jewish people act as a united front, leaving behind the disagreements of day-to-day life and stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to assist their brothers and sisters in need.
The Jewish Agency rented an entire hotel in Poland for newly arrived Ukrainian Jewish refugees. Adam Minsky described it well: “What we see here in this hotel is quite incredible. They’ve come up with a system here, where unlike where we come from, someone can be on a plane to Israel within five days, with healthcare and all the support they need in place.”
Lily Yarumenko was one of the hotel guests, arriving from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, which was heavily bombarded by Russian troops. She described an unbelievable eight-day car ride from her home to the safety of this hotel outside Warsaw, together with her two daughters and dog. She arrived disoriented, finding it difficult to process the newly unstable situation in her home country. After a few days in the hotel, she made up her mind to make Aliya to Israel and start a new, better life.
According to the Jewish Agency, close to 40,000 new immigrants have recently arrived in Israel from Ukraine, Russia, and the region. Soon after opening a hotline, the Jewish Agency received over 120,000 calls from Ukraine, Russia, and other neighbouring countries. The five transit centres near the Ukrainian border are still operating as the conflict grinds on. As time passes, this war disappeared from world news headlines, but on the ground many civilians continue to suffer. The main focus of Jewish organizations has shifted from helping the refugees physically relocate from war zone to Israel, to the challenging process of absorbing them in their new country. Most of the new immigrants are women, children, and the elderly. According to the Ukrainian Emergency Law, men aged 18 – 60 must stay in the country to take part in the war effort.
At the same time, there is still a need to take care of the Jewish community remaining in Ukraine, as many members of the community decided to stay and need help rebuilding their institutions and community life.
For those who came to Israel, the hope is that out of the terrible war, they will embark on a peaceful and prosperous future, especially for the younger generation. The State of Israel welcomes them with open arms and warm hearts.
The war in Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian crisis requiring a comprehensive response. UJA’s unique ability to identify emerging needs, coordinate efforts, and deploy resources has been invaluable.
UJA works closely with leading global Jewish organizations that were on the ground long before a crisis and will remain there long after it fades from the news headlines. Their special fundraising campaign has raised more than $5 million thanks to the generosity of more than 4,000 members of the Toronto Jewish community. Of that, over $1.4 million was granted by fundholders at the Jewish Foundation. This emergency money has had an even greater impact because of UJA’s ongoing Annual Campaign allocations to the agencies that are at the forefront of this lifesaving work in Eastern Europe and Israel.
Through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), UJA is providing urgently needed food, supplies, medicine, and other supports in 1,000+ locations in the region, including through 18 Hesed centres supporting Jews remaining in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. More than 38,000 community members have received help. UJA is providing transportation, accommodation, and safe passage to Ukraine’s borders through JDC and the Jewish Agency. More than 26,000 Jews have been evacuated. Through the Jewish Agency, UJA is providing food, housing, medical care, psychological care, childcare, and other essential services at six refugee centres to tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews currently holding in the surrounding countries. As of the end of June, over 41,000 new Aliyah applications have been processed.
Through the Jewish Agency, Ukrainian and Russian Jews are enabled to make emergency Aliyah through an expedited process. Roughly 29,000 new olim (immigrants) have arrived in Israel, and thousands more are expected. The Jewish Agency is providing temporary housing for up to 7,000 new immigrants in Eastern Europe and Israel.
In the GTA, over 100 Ukrainian refugees have become clients of the UJA-funded Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto. JIAS Toronto is providing financial assistance, support with orientation, free 30-day housing through a partnership with Airbnb, and both community and professional networking. The UJA-funded Jewish Free Loan Toronto will be providing interest-free loans of up to $10,000 each, with UJA serving as the guarantor, to cover emergency and essential expenses for Jewish Ukrainians arriving in Canada.
About the Author
For being considered one of the most respected and well-known journalists in Israel, Yaron Deckel’s career spans over three decades of reporting, editing, hosting, and serving as leader of one of Israel’s most popular radio stations. From 2012 – 2017, Deckel served as the Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Galei Tsahal, a national public radio station, where he oversaw an annual budget of $60 million shekels, and 350 employees and soldiers. In 2015 he began hosting a weekly prime-time radio talk show on politics. Deckel started his journalism career at the age of 18 at the same popular Army Radio Station.
As a political reporter and commentator for both radio and television, he has closely followed the ins-and-outs of Israeli politics and governance, developing close relationships with all the decision makers in Israel, including top politicians and military leaders. He has covered the last 12 Israeli election campaigns.
Between 2002 – 2007, Deckel served as Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for Israeli Public TV, where he covered U.S.-Israel relations and traveled the U.S. reporting on social and cultural issues, as well on internal U.S. politics. Deckel was the first Israeli journalist to interview President George W. Bush. He also interviewed Presidents Carter and Clinton, among other U.S. leaders. During his time in the States, he created a five-part TV documentary, “The Israelis,” following the lives of Israelis living in the U.S. and Canada. He also made a four-part documentary called “Jewish Identity in North America.”
Deckel is the winner of several awards, including the Sokolov Award, the most prestigious award for journalists in Israel. He also won the B’nai B’rith award for special coverage of the Jewish community in America.