Building New Lives and a Community in Israel



February 22, 2023

February 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Leading up to that day, we will share stories and experiences from Hillel students and professionals who have been impacted by the war over the last year. Stay tuned for more stories in the coming days. 

When the world is shifting around you, you’re far from your family, and the news from home is filled with fear and violence, where do you turn? Young adults from Ukraine and Russia who fled to Israel turn to a community that is a source of joy and comfort for them: their Hillel community.

Throughout the past year, Hillel staff members who live in Israel have created unique programming for young adults who previously participated in Hillel in Ukraine and Hillel Russia. These displaced students and young adults are looking to connect with each other as they create new homes for themselves in Israel. “Seeing these young adults come together throughout the year and reconnect with their Hillel community as they establish new lives in Israel is an ongoing inspiration for both myself and my colleagues,” said Josh Hartman, Associate Vice President for Immersive Experiences and Interim Lead of Global Operations at Hillel International.

From the High Holidays to Hanukkah, Hillel alumni have gathered to celebrate, study Torah, and uplift each other. 

Young Jewish adults from Ukraine and Russia who have been displaced by the war celebrated Passover and reformed their Hillel communities in Israel.

This unique Hillel family provides support for Ukrainian and Russian young adults fleeing the war and helps them rebuild their lives in Israel. As we mark the first anniversary of the start of the war, these first hand accounts from Russian and Ukrainian Hillel members demonstrate the beauty and importance of connecting with their Jewish community across borders and far from home. 

(Reflections have been lightly edited for language and clarity)

Noa Tumin, Hillel Moscow: For me it was an opportunity to see people I worked, volunteered, and had fun with for years, when we were still in Moscow, living our “old lives”. A chance to share experiences of being in a new country, learning a new language, and starting life from scratch with those who are going through the same hardships. To feel that we are still together, still part of Hillel, no matter what.

Atara Didenko, Hillel Kyiv: As a Jewish professional at Hillel Kyiv, I used to say: “Hillel is an opportunity.” Hillel and its meetings are an opportunity for leadership, to see people you haven’t seen for a long time, and a chance to reconnect with some old acquaintances. “Hillel is a family” is the second thing we like to say.  And family gatherings are always fun, noisy, and very warm. It was just like that at the Hillel Hanukkah event. I hope to see my Hillel family all together again soon.

Alena Vares, Hillel Donetsk: Lighting Hanukkah candles is always a special moment for me. This year I had the pleasure of lighting candles with my warm Hillel family in Jerusalem, just like we used to light together in Hillel Donetsk in Ukraine. Thank you to everyone who helped bring us together.

Ksusha Pelishenko, Hillel Moscow: Hanukkah with Hillel in Jerusalem was a real little winter miracle for me. I saw my beloved friends, felt like I was in a family circle, talked about miracles, and left with a feeling of real celebration and unity.

Reflecting on the past year, Elena Voltsinger, CEO of Hillel Russia, said, “These gatherings are truly miraculous as Hillel brings together students from different campuses, generations, and even countries, supporting each other as a true global family. As we look to the future, Hillel International’s support of Jewish student communities from war-affected areas is a true uniting force and service to the  international Jewish community.”