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08.06.2015

Jewish Agency head Ilana Shpak: “Israel is interested in repatriates from Ukraine"

A discussion about Jewish education, repatriation programs and the realities of Jewish Ukraine

Ilana Shpak is the head of the Jewish Agency’s Ukrainian office. She was born in Moldova, and at an early age she moved with her family to Ivano-Frankovsk, where she graduated from university, and became a teacher of Russian language and literature.

She repatriated to Israel in 1972. In Israel, she founded an insurance company and achieved success in her work.

She has been working as the head of the office for over three years, and in Kiev for one and a half years. Previously she was twice the head of the regional department of the Jewish Agency in Dnepropetrovsk.

What repatriation programs does the Jewish Agency offer today?

We have a lot of programs now. On 8 June, at the Olympsky stadium, a fair about Aliyah [repatriation – ed.], and work will take place in Israel. Employees of municipal groups of Israeli cities and representative of professional programs will go there. There are new programs, for example a program for bus and truck drivers. They offer courses for people who have already worked in this sphere – in Israel this is a good profession with a good salary. Such large-scale events have not existed in Ukraine for a long time.

Do you know how it happens? A person gets a vocation at a young age, works and works, but all their life they’ve wanted to be a cook, for example. And now, if this person plans to move to Israel, they can attend a special retraining program.

There will be representatives of programs on private business and entrepreneurship. They will explain how to open one’s business in Israel, what you need to know, and how to prepare for this.

The “Keren Edidut” foundation provides additional financial aid to repatriates. Does the Jewish Agency also provide this type of aid?

Their aid is the gift of a private sponsor. We provide aid of a different kind, and it is not even from us, but from the state itself. Additional sums from the state were allocated to repatriates and paid before 15 April. Owing to the change of government, new foundations have not yet been opened. As soon as they open, repatriates will once more start to receive additional funds.

What specialists from CIS countries are valued in Israel most of all? In other words, which new repatriates will find it easier to find good jobs?

You can’t give a simple answer to this question. Of course, IT specialists are always in great demand. Beside them, we make programs for doctors. Groups are sent out twice a year, receive aid for 12 months, and prepare for exams to receive a medical license in Israel. By the way, all the participants of the last course that we sent passed the exam, which is pleasant.

In May there was a preparatory seminar for this program, a doctor came to us from the Israeli Health Ministry and created a small test exam. There were 46 doctors at the seminar – a lot of people. The program is designed for young medical workers – those who have less than 14 years of experience. Before December these people decide whether they want to leave. Those who have been working for over 14 years can leave under another program.

Recently we published statistical data that new repatriates from Ukraine choose “Russian” cities such as Bat-Yam to live in most often. Does the Jewish Agency offer a certain list of cities, or do people themselves decide where to live?

Of course, repatriates can choose a city to live in themselves. But we shouldn’t forget the fact that practically all of them have connections in Israel: friends, former neighbors, family members, colleagues and so on. People who have been living in the country for longer recommend their own cities to their friends, and this is quite normal.

There are no longer any purely Russian cities in Israel. I live in Rishon-LeZion and like it very much. When people ask me for advice, I always recommend my city, because I really like it. I think that people choose cities for themselves according to this principle.

Of course, renting accommodation in Bat-Yam is cheaper than in Jerusalem. It’s also important to look at the work of the municipality in the issue of providing aid to people. The choice of repatriates from Ukraine is a compliment to the city administrations of Bat-Yam and other cities that lead on this list.

I already said that representatives of the municipalities of Israeli cities come to our fair, they take part in it completely at their own expense – they pay for travel, accommodation, work and so on. Their presence shows that they are interested in repatriates who will undergo absorption programs in their cities. They provide coordinates, they help families to choose kindergartens, schools, and help elderly people. All of these things are very important…

Although Israel is a small country, there are lots of opportunities there. We show people these opportunities and help them with their choice.

I myself have observed a situation two or three times in which people simply wrote the names of cities on pieces of paper, threw them in a hat and picked out a city to live in. But in the majority of cases people come here with a goal, direction and specific requirements.

How much has the number of repatriates increased in connection with the war in the country? Does the Jewish Agency make predictions for the present year?

We make predictions, but I wouldn’t really like to mention figures. Undoubtedly, there is an increase in people making Aliyah, but we don’t yet know precise data for this year.

It’s important to understand that Aliyah is not an issue that is resolved in half an hour or a day. People get ready, prepare documents, take part in our programs and seminars, and learn about the best place they want to go to…

You repatriated in the 1970s, when there was an idealistic wave of Aliyah. Today residents of eastern Ukraine are rather fleeing that following a Zionist idea. Which wave of Aliyah found it easier to settle in Israel?

In the 1970s we left for good. If someone had told me in 1972 that in 2000 I would return to Ukraine as an emissary from the Jewish Agency, I would have twisted my finger against my head. I didn’t even know what the organization was back then.

We had no choice, we underwent integration much more quickly. There were practically no Russian-language newspapers, and you couldn’t read the ones that did exist. There were no Russian-language TV channels, satellite TV or Internet. And there weren’t many of us – in ten years just 170,000 people came here. So integration took place very quickly.

Today, when Russian-language TV channels, newspapers and the Internet exist, people are more inclined to shut themselves off within their Russian-language community. In some cases integration takes place more slowly than in the 1970s, but it does take place.

At the same time there are very successful new repatriates, who open profitable businesses in the country after being here for a year…

That doesn’t mean integration. It’s a start, and I hope that it’s just the start of successful economic development. Integration, in my understanding, is when a person feels that they are a part of the state, that they belong to it. This process takes time….

What qualities should a repatriate have in order to achieve financial independence in Israel as quickly as possible?

It’s always easier for young people, they’re more flexible in their thinking… It’s important to pay attention to several things. The first is language, the second is the need to constantly move forward. You shouldn’t think about what has happened, you shouldn’t compare your past with the first months in the new country. You should set yourself a goal and confidently move towards it.

Israel provides opportunities to develop. There are organizations which provide aid in opening businesses, and their representatives will also be at our fair.

I came to Israel as a teacher of Russian language and literature. If today you can still find a job in this field, in 1972 it was impossible. No one understood what this profession was and who needed it. I was 24 years old, and I understood full well that no one would help me to live well, and I wanted a good life. In the end I became an insurance agent, which I am to this day, and I still have my own insurance office.

I didn’t look back at what I had left behind me, in the Soviet Union. I went to work as an assistant at an insurance agency, I studied and mastered this profession. My father didn’t understand what sort of business it was, if you couldn’t see the goods.

Nevertheless, I established my own business, I turned my office into one of the most renowned in Israel. Today this field is not so promising for young people, but there are many other promising fields.

People should understand one simple thing – in order to succeed both morally and economically, you must work. You must work and obey the law, pay taxes and do what you are supposed to. Israel only appears to be a circus. Everything is computerized, everything is known. So you need to obey the law and work hard. If you devote yourself to your work, you will reach your goal, and there are many such examples.

If we’re talking about older people, then age becomes increasingly important. For example, 40 is not an age at which you can’t find a job. There is time to learn the language, improve your professional level to Israeli standards. There are courses, there are licensed programs.

50 is a more problematic age. Of course you can find a job at 50, but this is more difficult.

I know many 50 year-olds who have found job, and I know many 30 year-olds who haven’t, evidently they’re waiting for something to come along of its own accord. I don’t like the phrase “I’m not in demand”, but I hear it often. Young man, what are you, a parcel or a letter at the post office? Go and make demands, work, search – water never flows under settled stones.

High-class specialists don’t have a problem at any age – they will always find work.

What are the main goals of work of the Jewish agency today?

The program goals are contact with the community, and what is called explanatory work.

Education?

And education too, without a doubt. And developing Jewish self-identification. We conduct educational programs for children from the age of 3. The projects are devised so that one leads to another, as the child gets older. The last stage is Taglit and MASA, 15 years after the beginning.

The children who have usually come to our camps do not leave us after they grow up. They come to take part in programs, to our events and celebrations. If they are with us, even if they didn’t get in a plane and fly to Israel, that means we haven’t lost them for the Jewish people. But when the person leaves and whether they will leave – that’s a second issue.

I’m convinced that the issue of Aliyah is the personal decision of each person. It’s not important for what reason people decide to go to Israel, what is important is that they go to, it’s personally for me that these people go to our country.

Can you tell us about your own repatriation? It wasn’t the easiest period for Aliyah…

Back then you had to submit documents to the OVIR (visa and registration department). We received a refusal several times, which was completely unmotivated. We didn’t have top-secret jobs, we were an ordinary family….

When permission from the OVIR was received, we bought tickets to Vienna via Bratislava. We left from Western Ukraine. In Vienna, we were met by employees of the Jewish Agency, which we did not know about at that time, and we were put in Schoenau castle. From there, two or three days later, we were sent to Israel.

When we arrived in the country, we were sent to absorption centers right at the airport. My family came to Kiryat-Shmona, and then moved to Kfar-Saba. I went to learn a new profession, and studied hotel management courses. But then the Yom Kippur War broke out, and this business became useless…

We weren’t fired from work in the Soviet Union, we resigned ourselves… There was one funny incident – a character description was required from my workplace for the OVIR. And my father worked at a medical institute. At my own workplace, I barely managed to get a character description, and the rector at Dad’s institute said that no one from his institute would go to Israel, and refused to give him this piece of paper, which was in fact completely unnecessary. And as far as I know, Dad wrote this character description himself and put a stamp on it, without the rector’s knowledge.

We waited for permission for five months. And when we got it, I was in Kiev. I rang my father in the evening from a pay phone, and he told me to return home immediately.

We left very quickly, we were afraid that we would be forced to pay for my higher education. We collected this money, and when we almost had the necessary sum, we received a call and were told that we were exempted from the obligation to pay, but that we had to leave the country very quickly. There was some agreement with Nixon at government level, I don’t know much about it. Incidentally, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing to pay for education, as in Israel the funds were returned, one to one. That wouldn’t have been a bad support…

You studied in Ivano-Frankovsk. Have you visited this city since your return to Ukraine?

Many times… Last time quite recently.

I go there for many reasons. My mother is buried at the Jewish cemetery there. My brother and I try to visit it when we are Ivano-Frankovsk.

Additionally, Ivano-Frankovsk is now in the zone of my professional responsibility. I don’t visit it very often, but I really like to go there. The city is now under the authority of UNESCO, there are many restored historical buildings there. I spent my youth there…

This city is very western, there are street cafes where you can sit and drink “kava”, this culture exists there.

You worked in Dnepropetrovsk as a representative of the Jewish Agency. What do you think, how was it possible to create such a strong Jewish community in Ukraine?

I think that this is the personal achievement of Rabbi Kaminetsky. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. Rabbis like this are hard to find – smart, democratic and not pushy.

I went to Dnepropetrovsk for the first time when there was just one little synagogue there, and Golden Rose was only being built, this was in the year 2000. When I returned for the second time, in 2012, I saw “Menorah”, and the life of the community… That is all his achievement.

You need to be able to find sponsors, solve problems, and help the members of your community. And all of this fell on fertile soil. Dnepropetrovsk is a complex city, it is not Kiev and not Odessa. Evidently, every rabbi is in the place where he should be.

What is the specific nature of the Kiev community, what have you discovered for yourself while you’ve been working here?

There are many different organizations here, many representatives of different schools of Judaism. It’s not like in Dnepropetrovsk – Kaminetsky himself says that he doesn’t like competitors [laughs – editor’s note].

It’s hard to call what happens here competition. I work with everyone. We all have the same goals, and in the end we don’t compete with each other. Everyone understands this full well.

What should the Jewish communities of Ukraine strive towards? How should they be developed?

You should always strive towards unity. Will this work? I don’t know. This is one of the oldest problems of the Jewish people. Division has often brought us to disaster. And we only survive when we are together.

The community will live. Interesting things happen here. The very fact that people come to all these Jewish events shows a positive tendency. I am happy about it, at least.

If you come to a celebration at the synagogue, there are many people there. And it’s not important that some of the people are not very religious, and that telephones start ringing in the prayer hall on Yom Kippur. What’s important is that they feel the need to be with their own people at this important moment for Jews.

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