Ukrainian immigrants, celebrated their first Jewish New Year in Israel since leaving their country in the wake of the Russina invasion.
Some 40,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived, having fled the war, and have sought citizenship in Israel.
A little more than six months have passed since Lena Kovalenko had to escape her home in Kiev along with her husband and three small children. She says the war still haunts them.
“We were in our house in Kiev when the war started. We heard a big explosion and saw a building collapse in front of us,” she says. "Some days later we packed-up our belongings, took some food and warm clothes, and began making our way to Israel," she says.
Kovalenko and her family settled in the northern city of Nahariya, “When we found the apartment it was empty, without electricity or furniture. My husband had a medical problem in his legs, but I believe everything will be okay,” she says.
"These days we’re learning Hebrew, and I’m studying the Jewish tradition as part of my conversion to Judaism. The kids are learning Hebrew much faster than us, they go to a religious school and already know all of the prayers by heart. When I see them returning from school happy, I understand what we’ve been through was worth it,” she says.
On Sunday, Kovalenko and her family celebrated their first Rosh Hashana in Israel. “My husband is religious, so we held ceremonies for Jewish holidays in Ukraine, but it’s very exciting to celebrate them in Israel. We felt at home since the first moment we landed here.”
“Last year was a challenge for us. It was tough and painful, but I hope we’ll have a better new year. I want my children to grow under bright skies, and hope I’ll be able to return to my old profession in cosmetics,” Kovalenko says. “I’m finally feeling safe and my trust in Israel has only grown.”
Daria Polishuk arrived in Israel with her two children, Amelia and Timofey, but her husband Andrei remained in Ukraine. “We lived in Sofiivska Borschahivka, a 20-minute drive away from Kiev. When fighting began we invited all of our relatives who had no electricity or water to stay with us. When 12 people moved in it was cramped, but we were together.” She says.
“Initially we waited thinking the war would end soon, not believing that something like this was happening in modern times.” Polishuk explaines. “Three weeks later we saw Russian forces take Chernobyl and begin construction of military bases, where it was forbidden to dig because of radiation.”
At that moment Polishuk says they decided to move to Israel. “We feared the radiation could spread to us and decided to move away from Ukraine. My mother and her husband helped me pack the suitcase with warm clothes. I took the children and we headed to Moldova, to the Israeli council," she says.
The family moved to Jerusalem upon their arrival. “The first thing we did was to go to the Western Wall and put notes in it," she says. "We stayed in a hotel for a month and then moved in to live with my mother-in-law in Haifa. We then rented an apartment which was completely empty. Volunteers from organizations helping new immigrants found appliances such as a fridge and washing machine,” she says.
Daria is a professional Dragon boat racer and continues to compete in Israel. “This sport is less developed in Israel, but some teams exist. My team won gold, silver and bronze medals.”
Daria and her children are slowly acclimating themselves to Israel. “I began studying Hebrew and the kids are helping me with homework. They talk a lot about school, it’s all new to them and they enjoy Jewish traditions.”
“We didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays in Ukraine, but are happy to celebrating Rosh Hashana as a family,” she says. “They want their father to be here and celebrate with us, but we’re still excited."
Dimitri and Laudra Sergeyenko lived in Kharkiv before Russian hostilities began. “We had an organized life, I worked as a tractor salesman and my wife was a librarian, Dimitri says. "We had a car and a nice apartment. When the war began, we realized that life itself was the only thing that mattered,” he says.
“Our region was bombarded so heavily that we didn’t have time to run for shelter, we just sat at home. Our granddaughter who lives in Israel visited us at the time, and keeping her safe was our highest priority.” Dimitri says.
On March 10, the couple decided to leave their home with their granddaughter and come to Israel. “At the start we only thought to bring our granddaughter back and return to Kharkiv, but we saw nothing was left there.” He says.
“We packed our bags and drove to Mukachevo, located 40 kilometers from the border with Hungary. We had to leave our car at the border and cross on foot. After crossing we hitched a ride to Budapest,” he says.
“On March 28, my wife’s birthday, we boarded the flight to Israel. We cried, laughed and hugged, grateful to be alive,” Dimitri says. “We rented an empty apartment and received donations from people, which I am grateful for.”
The couple is slowly acclimating to life in Israel. “We like being here. We’re going out to art exhibits, concerts and lectures. We’ve never celebrated Jewish holidays before, it’s all new to us. The Jewish High Holy Days are a chance for us to be with our family and new friends,” he says.
“The new Jewish year will present a blank page for us, with wishes for us to be calm and happy, we deserve it.”
Some 4,000 of the new arrivals, came thanks to immigration efforts by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization working to promote understanding and cooperation and build support between Jews and Christians in Israel.
The new immigrants are supported by the organization with the cooperation of local municipalities in Israel.
“With the coming of a new Jewish year, we’re happy to support the new immigrants with their integration in Israel, and to make sure every Jewish person who left Ukraine due to the war, can celebrate Rosh Hashana with pride and joy along with their family,” Beni Hadad, head of the Aliyah and integration department in the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said.