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March 31, 2022 3:55 pm

Surge in Academic Fellowships Helps Jewish Ukrainians Find Refuge in Israel


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Masa Fellows visiting the Western Wall. Photo: Masa Israel Journey.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven over 4 million people out of the country, an academic fellowship program in Israel is providing a lifeline for young Jews seeking refuge from violence and political unrest.

Since the war began on Feb. 24, Masa Israel Journey, founded in 2003 by the Jewish Agency for Israel, has had a 200% increase in applications for its fellowship program from Jews in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and other Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries. The spike in interest has prompted an expansion of operations and resources, Masa spokesperson Talia Alboher-Tevel told The Algemeiner in a recent interview.

“An average amount of fellows from FSU is 1,300, give or take, which was supposed to be the amount of fellows this year. We already have over 1,650, and I’m sure that number is even higher,” Tevel said. “Since the war started, over 100 fellows have already landed from the FSU area, and we are expecting a few hundred more to get here by the end of April.”

Masa initially planned on accommodating the newcomers by adding them to existing programs, but as the conflict intensified, it moved to broaden its program offerings and add more housing and internship options.

One Masa Dental Fellow from Ukraine, Ylana Odyonka, was already completing a MASA program and living in Israel, where she arrived last September, when Russian forces began their assault of her country. At the time, her ten year old son and mother in law were still in Ukraine.

“The day we sat for our first dental exam was the same day the war started, which made it difficult to focus,” Odyonka told The Algemeiner. She said her son and mother in law at first feared fleeing Ukraine on their own, but after being assured that the Jewish Agency would secure the journey out of the country, the boy and his grandmother “decided to run away.”

The pair took a train from Zaporizhia to Lviv, where they met with Agency officials and were ensconced in a safe place until a bus could transport them to Hungary. Arriving in Budapest days later, they stayed in a hotel for one week before boarding a flight to Tel Aviv.

“Now I have an Israeli passport, and yesterday, my son received a general visa. He needs to live here three more years to qualify for a passport, but so far, this is great,” she said.

“I will receive a license and I want go to work as dentist in Israel,” said Odyonka, who has one more exam to pass before she can practice there.

Some Masa Fellows, including 23-year-old Masa Fellow Leonid Gershenzon, have yet to reconnect with their loved ones in Ukraine.

“My sister, brother, father, my grandmother … they’re in Kharkiv in the east of the country,” Gershenzon said during a March 1 meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “They can’t move because, after three days, Ukraine is closed for civilians — they can’t go away, they can’t get out.”

Alongside Masa’s outreach to Ukrainian fellows, the Jewish Agency has recently launched the Aliyah Express program to expedite proceedings for the thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees immigrating to Israel. Aliyah Express will shorten the waiting period for eligibility verification and support assimilation when new immigrants arrive.

Monday saw the 10,000th refugee arrive in Israel since the war began, counting both those fleeing violence in Ukraine as well as repression in Russia and Belarus.

“Together with the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel, Masa is doing everything we can to support current and prospective Fellows from Ukraine, Russia, and other FSU countries, many of whom are experiencing tremendous uncertainty and loss,” Masa CEO Ofer Gutman said in an update on the program earlier this month. “Masa has an obligation to support these Fellows, and we aim to continue our expanding our resources to provide expedited pathways for them to come to Israel.”

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