JTA — For the first time in more than a decade, Russia and Ukraine provided Israel with most of its immigrants in a calendar year.
Russia emerged as Israel’s largest provider of immigrants under its law of return for Jews and their relatives with 7,224 newcomers, followed by 7,182 immigrants from the Ukraine, according to an updated report of immigration to Israel, or aliyah, by a partnering organization of the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption.
The update from last week includes those who entered as tourists and applied for aliyah while already in Israel.
Of the 28,598 legal immigrants last year, 50.4 percent were from Russia or Ukraine, according to the updated chart. France was Israel’s third largest source of aliyah with 3,424 newcomers, followed by the United States, Ethiopia and Belarus with 2,996, 1,312 and 973 immigrants, respectively.
The increase in immigration from Ukraine and Russia came amid a financial crisis in both countries, which in 2014 entered a territorial dispute.
Last year was also the first time that Israel saw the arrival from Russia and Ukraine of immigrants who had already begun their conversion to Judaism in their countries of origin prior to immigrating.
Pre-aliyah conversion services in those countries began in 2016 with the launching of the Maslul project for those who are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, but nonetheless are eligible for aliyah thanks to a Jewish ancestor or spouse.
Maslul uses a point system that allows immigrants to resume conversion studies seamlessly, ahead of an Orthodox conversion overseen by the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate. The program’s first graduate, Olga Kisilenko, completed her conversion this month. She immigrated to Israel last March with her 8-year-old son, Boris. The boy’s father, who was born Jewish, passed away later in the year.
“It was far easier to concentrate on conversion back in Kiev,” said Kisilenko, whose conversion took approximately three years.
The Triguboff Institute, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Australian branch of United Israel Appeal launched Maslul in 2016 to address the integration difficulties of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
A few dozen Maslul participants are due to complete their conversion this year, and hundreds more are studying in Maslul classes in Moscow and Kiev, the Triguboff Institute’s CEO, Shalom Norman, told JTA.