by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
In 2022, a record-breaking number of Jewish people made the decision to bid the country of their birth farewell and return to the country God covenanted to their ancestor Abraham. In fact, Israel has not seen such an influx of new olim (immigrants) coming home since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and the borders of former communist nations swung open.
Not everyone who arrived last year had originally planned to come. One of the ripple effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was a colossal upsurge in aliyah (immigration to Israel) as the nation became a safe haven for Jewish people who never considered immigration before the fighting started.
Yet the overwhelming majority of Israel’s newest citizens are not from war-torn Ukraine. They hail from Russia. And as uncertainty, fear and instability continue to shake the world’s largest country, the number of Russian olim coming home to Israel in 2023 is expected to outstrip the 2022 figure by far. In fact, during the first months of 2023, Russian aliyah has spiked by nearly 300% over the 2022 figures—and it continues to climb.
While the account of the homecoming Ukrainian refugees is well publicized, Russian aliyah occurs mainly behind the scenes. It has to. As with so many times in history, Jewish lives are at stake.
“Last year, we welcomed 75,000 new immigrants from around the world to Israel,” says Shmulik Fried, director of Keren Hayesod’s Friends of Israel, the Jewish state’s preeminent international fundraising organization that plays a leading role in supporting and enhancing aliyah as well as absorption post-immigration into Israeli society.
Of course, 75,000 prophetic homecomings are something to be celebrated, but the context makes them truly significant. According to Fried, between 28,000 and 30,000 people immigrate to Israel in an average year. “That makes the 75,000 in 2022 more than double. It’s a number that Israel has not seen in over 30 years since the early 90s after the Soviet Union collapsed.”
The upsurge in aliyah figures is not unexpected, of course. The war in Ukraine unleashed the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. And with Israel opening its doors to Jewish refugees, everyone expected the numbers to go up.
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, between 3,000 to 4,000 Ukrainian Jews streamed to Israel every month. Yet toward the end of 2022, those numbers had dropped to between 300 and 400.
Russian aliyah had a slower start. “Unlike the Ukrainians, the Russians didn’t really feel the war in the beginning,” Fried explained. With the media largely acting as a mouthpiece for the powers-that-be and the frontlines located beyond the borders, Russians initially remained largely untouched. And even if they did condemn the war, it didn’t invade their homes, their day-to-day existence, Fried continued. “Russian immigration did rise, but not dramatically. We had an average of between 500 and 800 people coming monthly.”
Then Russian President Vladimir Putin called up 300,000 Russian civilians to bolster the war effort. Suddenly, fathers, husbands, sons and brothers marched off to war. Overnight, panic struck and Russian men of fighting age desperately sought a way out. And for Russian Jews, Israel beckoned.
The result? “Over the past five months, we’ve welcomed exponentially more Russian olim every month,” Fried said. “This is a massive wave of aliyah happening as we speak. And it is happening under the radar—for a specific reason.”
Under Soviet rule, Russian Jews were prohibited from immigrating, leaving them trapped in a society where they were persecuted, maligned and victimized to such an extent that many chose to hide their Jewish identity. Now, in a chilling throwback to those terrible times, Russian leaders once again wield the power to slam shut the skies over Russia at a whim, leaving the Jewish population trapped inside—just like under Soviet rule.
“Up until this point, we’ve been blessed,” Fried held. “Putin allows Russians to leave, but he’s keeping a close eye on things.” The mass exodus is bad for morale, drains the economy and delivers a blow to the public image, Fried argued. And the moment may come when Putin has had enough and decides to close the borders without a moment’s notice, leaving Russia’s Jewish population of roughly 600,000 people virtually imprisoned.
According to Fried, “That’s why we’re keeping a low profile. We don’t want to poke the bear. But we’re very concerned.”
Despite the tensions, Fried sees the homecoming as a prophetic fulfilment of God’s promises delivered by biblical prophets to regather the Children of Israel to their ancient homeland. And Bridges for Peace, working actively alongside its Jewish partner to bring the return about, forms part of the fulfilment.
“It means Jews and Christians are committed to one another to fulfill Bible prophecy,” says Fried. “It’s not only our mission as the Jewish people. The Bible says He will raise a banner for the nations (Isa. 11:12). It says the nations will carry our sons and our daughters home (Isa. 49:22). So working together, we are actually fulfilling prophecy given 3,000 years ago.”
According to Fried, the partnership also means that Christians are physically involved in rescuing Jewish lives, something that was not always the case. “I am the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. My grandfather used to say, ‘I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Nobody cared about us.’ I know that is not the case anymore. Today, you have millions of Christians who will be there if, God forbid, the Jewish people face danger. It means we are not alone.”
The unexpected number of Jewish people coming home also means unprecedented financial, logistical, spatial and physical challenges for Israel. But Fried is right. Israel is not alone. God has indeed raised up a banner, and we have responded. Bridges for Peace will continue to help carry the Jewish people home on our shoulders, just like God said.
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