As the war in Donbass that began more than three years ago continues, Russia-Ukraine tensions remain high; but citizens of both countries who are on Birthright Israel tours focus instead on the Jewish heritage that unites them.
Of the 3,100 Russian-speaking Birthright participants who visited Israel this summer, 800 were Ukrainian and 1,800 were Russian.
David Pevzner, 19, is from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Pevzner studies medicine in Krasnodar, Russia, and is touring Israel as part of a Birthright group for medical students and doctors. The 40 participants are a 50/50 mix of Ukrainians and Russians.
“There is no problem – hakol beseder,” Pevzner tells the The Jerusalem Post on Sunday night, speaking in English but using the Hebrew words to say “everything is okay.”
For Pevzner, the opportunity to meet other Jews, not only from Russia and Ukraine, but from all over the world, is an overwhelmingly positive one. He is talking to the Post at an event held at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, put on by Taglit-Birthright Israel and Genesis Philanthropy Group, for 900 Russian-speaking Birthright Israel participants.
“No matter where we come from we are all Jews and this is the most important thing. We communicate with people from around the world,” he says, pointing to participants he has met from countries such as Germany, France and the US.
“It’s very interesting to communicate with people both from other societies and other countries.
“This is a special experience for me and I think this trip will influence me in a good way. I think it helps me understand who I am and will make me move to Israel more quickly,” he adds.
Several of the participants who spoke with the Post expressed an interest in moving to Israel, one of the effects of the organization’s mission to create and foster ties to Israel and the Jewish people, though it does not expressly promote immigration to the country.
These goals are important to Pevzner, too, who has always been actively involved in Jewish life in Crimea, with organizations such as Netzer, Hillel, Tzofim and also in ulpan. “I think we should help to create Jewish community to teach young Jewish members of society and to get results,” he says earnestly.
Maxime Gonik, from Volgograd, Russia, has never been affiliated with any Jewish community.
He has experienced some prejudice about his Jewish identity in his hometown, but brushes it off as jokes coming from people who “have prejudice about everyone. I just ignore them.”
“I think Taglit is a very good experience to feel part of the Jewish nation,” he adds, saying that when he leaves he expects to feel more confident in his Jewish identity. “I feel more Jewish than Russian and I will seek to learn more about my Jewishness when I am home.
“For me, the Jewish community is really interesting because I don’t think any other nation has such a close community. If you say you are Jewish it binds nationalities together,” Gonik says.
Dima Galen, 29, from Ungvar, western Ukraine, was the counselor for the medical professionals’ group. He admits he had concerns about the mix of participants from Russia, Ukraine and Crimea before the tour began. “I was afraid of some conflicts and how they would be with each other – but they are all doctors and they are all Jewish and it makes them feel together,” he says.
He says that he tries to avoid any political discussions but of course cannot control what his participants talk about privately. “When I see there is something, we try to find what we have in common,” he notes. He comes from western Ukraine and though he says his area is highly tolerant, Russia is still seen as the enemy. “We are under pressure of propaganda so it’s important to see real people, not just something from the media,” he says.
This is the second time Galen is leading a mixed group. “Because they have doctors’ ideals and believe that human life is the most important thing, in some way it protects them from extreme levels of aggression,” he says. “We try our best to mix the group, to help them talk to each other and to get truthful information from the opposite side.” The counselor also encourages participants to stay in touch after the program, though he acknowledges that visits to one another are difficult in the current situation.
Tamara Berehovska, 22, from Kiev, led an all- Ukrainian group, but she was concerned about how the participants would interact with those from Russian-controlled areas.
“Sometimes they talk about their lives in the occupied territories and some people are interested, but sometimes people are surprised that they don’t leave and think that if they love Ukraine then why don’t they leave,” she says, but adds that this topic is left un-tackled as there is also an understanding that it is hard to leave one’s home.
“I can say on the seventh day of the trip that it works totally fine. They act like they have been friends forever. All 40 are dancing together right now,” she says, as the pumping music from the mega-event dance party outside reverberates through the room.
“There are no cliques and division at all,” she emphasizes.
Like Pevzner, Berehovska is actively involved in Jewish life and education. She spent three years working for the Jewish Agency and studied Jewish texts intensively on a program in Sweden. She was inspired to lead a Birthright group in order to share her wealth of knowledge.
But Ivan Goncharenko, Birthright’s FSU and Germany marketing and recruitment director, emphasizes that these active and affiliated Jews are far from the norm. According to him, more than 50 half of the participants from the former Soviet Union didn’t even know they had Jewish roots until recently. “My priority is to find anyone who can go on Birthright,” he says. Every two weeks he travels to Ukraine and Russia to find Jews who could participate. “If we don’t find them today, we will lose them,” he says.
Indeed, Mariia Skorska, 22, a marketing student from Dnipro, Ukraine [until May 2016, Dnipropetrovsk (Ukrainian) or Dnepropetrovsk (Russian)] only discovered recently that she is Jewish. Her parents had never told her that her mother was Jewish and she learned of her family history from a cousin.
“So now, when I learn more about the Jewish religion and Israeli history, I want to join the community and learn more and more. I’m proud of it,” she gushes. Having spoken to Israeli soldiers who joined her group and having been moved by a visit to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, Skorska has decided she wants to serve in the IDF. “I want to do the same thing as these people who protect and support the country,” she says.
Skorska has made Russian friends during her trip, and echoes the voices of others when she says, “We don’t talk about politics – we’re all friends.”
Kate Kalvari, 25, from Kiev, says, “We were worried about it at first, but we saw that we were all adults and first and foremost we are Jewish – everyone is a citizen of his country and politics is not our subject of conversation.”
The same holds for the counselors. Ahead of the summer, Goncharenko led a training seminar for more than 100 counselors from all over the FSU.
“They set aside their political differences – it’s not important, they speak about other things,” he says.