Wars In Israel And Ukraine Take Center Stage In Israel For Jews With Roots In The former Soviet Union

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Israeli military reservists were among the 150 people with roots in the former Soviet Union who gathered on Dec. 21, 2023, for an evening of lectures, music and solidarity with Israel. (Alexander Khanin)
“I decided to stay. I’m not afraid. This is my home. I am on top of governmental and judiciary decisions. It’s my final decision the one is taken. I live with my partner and daughter and we are comfortable.” 
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TEL AVIV — Valeriia Kholodova knows all too well the horrors of war. Born and raised in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, she fled to Kyiv in 2014 after fierce fighting broke out between pro-Russian separatists and government forces. 

Then, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she fled again — this time to Israel. 

Now, living through her third war in less than a decade, Kholodova, 40, is no longer running.

“What happened on Oct. 7 changed everything,” said Kholodova, who heads Chabad’s charity projects in Ukraine remotely from her Israeli home in Rehovot while representing Hillel in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Azerbaijan.

Kholodova was among 150 Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union who gathered Dec. 21 at a hotel in Jaffa for an evening of lectures, music and solidarity with Israel.

The event was organized by Limmud FSU, the global Jewish organization that brings together Jews with roots in the former Soviet Union to strengthen their sense of community and Jewish identity. 

The event in late December originally was supposed to take place at Shefayim, the kibbutz in central Israel where evacuees from Kfar Aza, one of the communities devastated on Oct. 7, have been relocated. The plan for a big annual festival there was quickly scrapped.

“This is a difficult time,” said Limmud FSU’s founder, Chaim Chesler, noting that the war in Israel became the focus of this event. “We didn’t want to give up, so we decided to move it somewhere else on a smaller scale — and to show everybody that we are alive.”

At one session, Victor Vakhstein discussed how U.S. college campuses have become “new bastions of antisemitism.” Kiril Fefferman talked about why the Holocaust has become one of the defining themes of Israel’s war against Hamas—both for Jews and their enemies. Binyamin Minich lectured on the four fast days of the Jewish calendar

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Marat Mairovich and Nina Garbuzova offered a master class on theater. Ukrainian-born guitarist and actor Ariel Krizhopolsky put on a musical performance. Participants paid a small fee of their choice, with all money raised going to the Lone Soldiers Fund. 

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David Mayofis, 24, immigrated to Israel in 2014 from the Russian city of Tomsk, in Siberia. He ascribed global protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza to antisemitism. 

“It’s not because we are dealing with a terrorist organization, it’s because of the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist. That’s why they think Hamas is a resistance movement,” said Mayofis, whose pro-Israel blog in English and Hebrew has 37,000 Instagram followers. “They want to remove Israel from the map completely. Criticism of Israel is valid, but once you say, ‘From the river to the sea,’ that’s antisemitism.”

Both Raheli Baratz-Rix of the World Zionist Organization and human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky used their sessions to urge attendees to speak out forcefully against antisemitism and the crimes Hamas is committing, including against Israel’s hostages.

“Jews are being attacked only because they’re Jews or Israelis,” said Baratz-Rix, head of the WZO’s Department for Combating Antisemitism & Enhancing Resilience. “Since the war began, Hitler has become a cultural hero in the Arab world. There are protests all over the Arab world with people carrying his picture and the phrase, ‘It’s a shame you didn’t finish the job. We will continue it.’”

She added: “Our job here is not only to increase awareness about what’s going on, but also to encourage people to speak out against it. Don’t stay silent.” 

Ostrovsky was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, grew up in Australia and has lived in Israel since 2012. He runs the International Legal Forum, a nonprofit coalition of pro-Israel lawyers from around the world.

“So much of the legal discourse we’re seeing around the world influences what’s happening on American college campuses, at the United Nations and on the streets of Europe,” he said. “But people are intentionally misapplying the law to attack and delegitimize Israel. So we must correct that while providing a passionate defense of Israel, and ensuring that the narrative stays on the real war crimes being committed by Hamas.”

Ostrovsky, who has 250,000 followers on X, said that in December alone, his posts have generated over 100 million impressions.

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Limmud FSU co-founder Chaim Chesler and Raheli Baratz-Rix of the World Zionist Organization at the Limmud FSU event in Israel on Dec. 21, 2023. (Alexander Khanin)

“We’re in the age of social media, and misinformation spreads like wildfire. We’re fighting this war on multiple battlefronts, not only in the legal arena but also the digital arena—especially when we’re dealing with millennials,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle, but at the same time we’re also seeing people standing up for Israel and seeing the horrors for themselves. And they are speaking up.”

Since its creation in 2005, Limmud FSU has held nearly 90 festivals worldwide, drawing over 80,000 participants. The organization is led by chairman Matthew Bronfman, Chesler, co-founder Sandy Cahn, and executive director Natasha Chechik, and its work is supported by individuals and organizations including the WZO, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Nativ-Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Jewish National Fund – KKL, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Wilf Family Foundation, Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, Diane Wohl, Bill Hess and others.

Iryna Tsarenko flew to Israel in December for a 10-day volunteer program that included picking vegetables on a kibbutz, touring the damaged city of Sderot, spending Shabbat in Jerusalem and meeting with the families of Israeli hostages taken to Gaza. Originally from Kyiv, Tsarenko, 41, left soon after Russia invaded Ukraine and moved to Berlin. 

“I live in Germany, but Ukraine and Israel are really my countries — and both are at war,” Tsarenko said. “Many farmworkers went back to Thailand and they had nobody to pick the crops. So this was my opportunity to help Israel.” 

This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Limmud FSU, which nurtures open, pluralistic, dynamic learning platforms across the world for Jews of all ages and backgrounds with roots in the former Soviet Union, while embracing the Jewish intellectual, cultural and religious traditions grounded in this shared experience.

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