KFAR CHABAD – A missile alarm sounds. Students and staff at the Or Simcha youth village jog past the petting zoo into the open bomb shelter, where they wait, mostly chatting and laughing, until the “boom” is heard, indicating a missile impact or interception. The all-clear is given.
Only one little girl seems genuinely afraid, hiding under a table and shaking before coming out to receive a hug from a counselor.
Numbering some 40 children, the Alumim foster home has already been evacuated twice under fire, both times with the support and coordination of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. First, from its home in central Ukraine. The children were relocated to Israel shortly after Russia invaded in February 2022.
Following the October 7 Hamas invasion of Israel, they were evacuated from Ashkelon, where they had thought they had found a stable home in the Jewish state.
But for these Ukrainian-Jewish children of the Alumim foster home, newly housed in Or Simcha, occasional alarms are a vast improvement over their previous situations.
“I feel the children are strong. They are also very flexible; they have dealt with this pretty easily,” says Malki Bukiet, the educator who runs the home along with her husband. Bukiet talks with the Times of Israel in one of the apartments where the students now live, packed several to a room. The kitchen also serves as an informal classroom.
The Hasidic Chabad movement has run Alumim for many years in a compound in the city of Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv.
The children, who are all Jewish according to Jewish law, come from broken homes or have an incarcerated parent or other difficult situations. In many cases they are still in touch with their families. At Alumim, the children have a stable schedule, better resources and much more exposure to their Jewish heritage, Bukiet explains.
“Alumim isn’t an orphanage, it is a Jewish foster home,” she says.
When the war started in Ukraine, “we immediately decided to leave the city and go into the mountains, more in the west. We thought we would be there for a few weeks… but we saw the war didn’t end, it was something serious. We talked with the close family of the children, we told them we wanted to bring the children to Israel… Everyone said we should go to a quiet, safer place,” she recalls.
“There were even a few mothers who joined us. And through miracles, we were able to arrive. We were able to pass through the Ukrainian borders and come to Israel. The foreign ministry helped us to get the children permission to enter,” Bukiet says. She described the overland journey by bus, traveling through the Carpathian mountains, into Romania and then finally flying to Israel.
The group eventually settled in Ashkelon in March 2022, where “we took over a neighborhood,” Bukiet jokes. The group, then numbering about 60 children, was able to rent several houses in the same area in the coastal city.
As the war in Ukraine continued, some of the children’s immediate family members immigrated and settled in Ashkelon, creating an extended community.
The Alumim children are enrolled in schools and learning Hebrew, biding their time until an eventual return to Ukraine.
The veneer of stability cracked on October 7, the horrific outbreak of the Israeli-Hamas war. That evening, after crowding with the children in a bomb shelter for most of the day, Bukiet got on the phone and was able to once again quickly arrange for a new living situation.
“We heard the alarms, [the children] already knew to run to the bomb shelter… At a certain point, we heard loudspeakers saying there were terrorists outside in the streets. We knew it was something serious, so right after that Shabbat, we decided that we would have to leave,” Bukiet recalls.
The next afternoon they were on a bus to central Israel, away from the immediate conflict zone. Largely because of Bukiet’s contacts – she was raised in the Chabad movement – they were able to settle in Or Simcha in Kfar Chabad, a gated compound that also houses an elementary school, a yeshiva and other facilities.
The morning of October 7 saw, under cover of massive rocket barrages into Israel, some 3,000 Hamas terrorists break through Israel’s Gaza perimeter in a surprise attack. With security forces caught by surprise, the terrorists rampaged through communities, killing some 1,400 Israeli citizens and taking over 240 hostage, including young children, women, and the elderly. Israel declared war on Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the country has been on a war footing ever since.
It’s a state that is all too familiar to the children.
“In Ukraine, we lived with the sounds of gunfire and rocket attacks in the background as we fled, and now we feel as if anywhere we go war is following us. I really don’t know where I can feel safe anymore and I’m so scared that I’ll need to get on another plane to escape war. I just want it to end, but here in Kfar Chabad I can feel safer,” Chani, 12, says in a statement released by Alumim.
About 20 of the Alumim children – those whose parents had come to live in Israel – elected to stay behind with their families in Ashkelon. Ashkelon lies just over 20 kilometers from Gaza and is a frequent target of rocket attacks. Currently, the city is partially evacuated.
In Kfar Chabad, “we are able to build a routine, have some classes each day, some activities — we are also organizing volunteering. We are trying to keep them busy,” Bukiet says. “They know there is war… they had to flee from their place, but in comparison to what some people have experienced, we left on time, from Ashkelon and also from Ukraine.”
The children in her care, she says, “don’t often look back at the past.”
Most of the kids are now aged 12-14. The youth village, which has lots of open spaces and palm trees, is a religious place for boys only. Bukiet arranged for the girls to live separately in a rented house nearby, and the children attend classes and activities together.
Shimon, 14, says he likes it in Kfar Chabad but complains that they don’t have good Wi-Fi. “When there are alarms here, I am not afraid, I am relaxed. I taught myself to not become hysterical anymore,” he explains in Russian.
Most of the children have cellphones and the staff doesn’t try to control what the oldest of the kids can access. “We have talked with them about content, the videos of atrocities going around,” Bukiet says.
One young child, when discussing the Hamas-filmed videos, told her, “I already saw in real life all these things in Ukraine, so I can see it all!” she recalls.
The Alumim group, at the time of this writing, has been in Kfar Chabad for almost a month, and Bukiet says that they are now starting to think that the location will be permanent.
“The big picture is that we don’t have another place. It’s true that the children have family and friends in Ukraine. But in all the world, the most secure place for Jews is in the Land of Israel. So we are here… waiting for victory along with everyone else,” she says.
Marina, 16, is one of the Alumim wards who will welcome such a decision, as she says she had already decided to stay, even though her mother is back in Ukraine.
“It’s better in Israel, there are options. I see my life here. I didn’t see a future in Ukraine, even before the war there. Here I can see something great, I can see success,” says Marina.
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