When Nina agrees to meet me to discuss her experiences as a Ukrainian immigrant living in Israel, she says she is proud to share her story. “I cam e here almost twenty years ago,” she tells me with a soft smile. “And every day I think about how happy I am to be here, and how much I miss my parents’ home in Shargorod.”
In many ways, Nina’s immigration story mirrors those of the 266,000 other Ukrainian Jews who migrated to Israel during the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Her primary reasons for leaving the Ukraine were family oriented. Economic conditions were poor, the Jewish population was shrinking, and families wanted both reunification with members who had already migrated to Israel and the best possible futures for their children.
“Anger against the Jews did exist then, yes,” Nina agrees. “But it was not what made my family leave. Today, it’s worse.” She references several instances of recent anti-Semitic incidents in the Ukraine. But for Nina and her husband, both teachers, they found it increasingly difficult to economically survive and maintain any semblance of a middle-class lifestyle. Many of the émigrés of the 1990s were also well-educated people — scientists, educators, engineers, and artists.
Nina’s children have spent almost their entire lives in Israel. While they have few memories of their time in the Ukraine, Nina makes sure to keep their Ukrainian heritage alive for them — in the food and music that fills the home, and in the photo albums that provide glimpses into that history. What stays in her own heart most, she says, is her parents’ village of Shargorod, where she grew up. The area was unforgettably captured in the tales of Sholom Aleichem, and Nina says that little had change when she left. Families lived in homes made of stone, mud, and thatch, in the shade of the Ukraine’s oldest stone synagogue, built in 1589.
But for all the looking back, Nina finds life in Israel to be a gift. “More of my close relatives live in Israel now than in the old country,” she recounts. “Our family is truly reunited.” Nina and her husband continue to teach, and they have settled in the resort area of Eliat, where they enjoy living near the water and a nature reserve.
The Jews in the Ukraine
The Jewish community in the Ukraine is a much different group than the one Nina left two decades before. For one thing, its numbers are much smaller. Only 80,000-112,000 Ukranian Jews remain, and it’s estimated that up to 80% of the Jewish population emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. About 30,000 or more Jews emigrate from the Ukraine each year, with the majority settling in Israel, followed by Germany and the United States.
The greatest change is probably in the increased rise of anti-Semitic activities. Many newer immigrants have stories to tell about anti-Semitic comments, and it appears that some Ukranian leaders are fanning the flames. In one notorious incident, a Ukrainian political called for “a purge of Jews,” demanding that “merciless action” be taken. Jewish buildings have been attacked, and individuals have been beaten.
Amid the episodes of bigotry, there have been some bright spots. In 2007, 700 Torah scrolls confiscated during Communist rule were returned by Ukrainian authorities. And in 2008 the Ukrainian Jewish Committee was established to focus on problems of the Jewish community. In a growing trend, many Israelis are visiting the Ukraine for “roots trips,” as the country was home to many prominent Jews, including Golda Meir, Amos Oz, Sholem Aleichem and others. Renewed interest in this country by other Jewish citizens may be a hopeful sign for the stability of the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Jewish life in the Ukraine can be traced back to the 6th century, during the reign of the Khazar. Many Jews in both the Ukraine and Israel are not ready to see its roots die. Nina has no plans to return, but says she likes to think that somewhere in the Ukraine, someone will always be reading from the Torah and lighting a candle for Shabbat.