Eugene Lempert received a free Bible as he made his way to Israel in 1991. Born in Ukraine, Eugene grew up in an atheist Jewish family. He did not believe in God but thought reading the Bible might help him better understand his people’s history. Eugene carefully avoided the New Testament, however, which he thought was antisemitic.
Later, while living in Jerusalem, he decided to take a peek; he was shocked to discover how Jewish it was. After realizing he could never please God through his own efforts, he trusted in Yeshua. Eugene has been living for the Lord ever since and now serves with Chosen People Ministries in Israel.
For decades, Ukrainian Jews have been shaping Israel. A huge wave of immigration from Russia and Ukraine swept over Israel in the early 1990s. At that time, a great revival broke out across the former Soviet Union, and many brought their newfound faith with them to Israel. Their arrival deeply changed the face of Israel’s Messianic movement. The current war in Ukraine has sparked another mass migration to Israel. These refugees are arriving in Israel with few or no belongings. Chosen People Ministries, the government, and other organizations are helping them resettle. This article gives an overview of Ukrainian Jews in Israel—their history, the current situation, and our ministry’s work.
Ukrainian Jews and Israel in the Late 1900s
For decades, the Soviet Union sharply restricted immigration to Israel. These rules began to ease in the 1970s. This shift spawned a mass migration of Jewish people from the region, and Israel was by far the most popular destination. Many also went to Germany or the United States for economic reasons. Being used to a large country like Ukraine, some Ukrainians in Israel found their new home claustrophobic—Israel is a little bigger than New Jersey.
Israel has also not been the safest place in the world given frequent violence and terror attacks. For these reasons, some immigrants to Israel from the Former Soviet Union returned to Europe. However, Germany and the United States sometimes change their immigration requirements, while Israel has always offered citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent. Additionally, Israelis born in the former Soviet Union have a higher life expectancy and fertility rate than Jewish people who remained in Europe.
For most Jewish people in the former Soviet Union, moving to Israel was more a practical choice than an ideological one. They were not necessarily Zionists; few believed Israel had a divine right to the land. Contempt for the Soviet Union was a much greater motivator than love of Israel. This wave of immigrants to Israel peaked in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union dissolved.
Revival among Ukrainians
The vast majority of Ukrainian immigrants to Israel were secular. After all, they grew up in the Soviet Union, which viciously persecuted religious groups. Communist theory is innately atheistic. Nevertheless, a great revival emerged in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This revival proved especially strong in Ukraine. Many gladly turned to churches and Messianic congregations in search of answers. Decades of Soviet oppression gave way to remarkable spiritual openness.
Initial Messianic outreach in Ukraine paved the way for an independent, full-fledged Ukrainian Messianic movement. Before the Russian invasion in February 2022, there were several Messianic congregations throughout the country. Chosen People Ministries regularly hosted seminars for these congregational leaders. Many Messianic Jewish believers have been among the recent Ukrainian immigrants to Israel .
Indeed, about 65 percent of Israel’s Messianic community today is Ukrainian or Russian, and some have come to faith while in Israel. That is the story of Michael Zinn, who oversees our partner ministry in Israel. He moved to the land with his wife in the 1980s. While studying Hebrew, they met an American couple who was extraordinarily loving toward them. After Michael poured out his heart to this couple, the man said, “I cannot help you. There is only one who can help you. His name is Jesus.” After some time and ongoing conversations, both Michael and Natalie placed their trust in the Messiah Jesus.
Recent Ukrainian Immigration to Israel
Mass Ukrainian Jewish immigration to Israel resurged in 2014, when conflict broke out on the border with Russia. In that year alone, more than 5,000 Ukrainians made aliyah (became Israeli citizens). In 2017, more than half of Israel’s new immigrants were from Russia or Ukraine.
Of course, the present war in Ukraine has caused the greatest wave of immigration from Ukraine to Israel in decades. More than 10,000 refugees (both Jewish and non-Jewish) have already fled to Israel. Some are expecting there to be between 50,000 and 100,000 Ukrainian Jewish people making aliyah over the next year due to the war.
Israel is doing what it can to provide for refugees. The needs, however, are so numerous and sudden that a great deal of work remains. Israel has organized a hotline for refugees to request aid. The most common request is for food. Many also have more complex needs, including medical and psychological services. These needs will likely become more prominent as the rate of immigration slows. Dozens of organizations are contributing to this cause. Chosen People Ministries—Israel is among them.
Chosen People Ministries and Ukrainian Jews in Israel
We have already been working hard to help Jews and non-Jews within Ukraine. Our staff and volunteers have also served on the western border in Poland, in Germany, and other parts of Europe. That was phase one of our efforts to help many survive the ravages of war, and these ministries are ongoing!
Our next step is to focus on two or three families per month by placing them in apartments in Jerusalem and the greater Tel Aviv area. We will give these immigrants places to live and other resources they need. The Israeli government is overwhelmed with the wave of immigrants and cannot help with their needs.
Our vision is to provide low-cost housing, food, companionship, vocational counseling, childcare, and so much more so they can stand on their own two feet in their new country. This wave of immigration will open new long-term opportunities for our ministry partners in Israel, many of whom are from the former Soviet Union. Our global staff also includes several Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers. No one knows when or how the crisis in Ukraine will end. Still, the Ukrainians who make aliyah will have to learn a new culture and language. They will need to rebuild their lives—find housing, get jobs, and forge new communities.
Thirty years ago, massive Jewish immigration to Israel from the Former Soviet Union transformed the country. It created a sizable Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking segment of the population, especially within the Messianic community. The present war in Ukraine and refugee crisis are likewise creating significant demographic shifts. Only time and retrospect will fully reveal these shifts. Whenever and however the war ends, Chosen People Ministries—Israel has committed to help Ukrainian Jews who have chosen to settle in Israel.
 Mark Tolts, “Post-Soviet Aaliyah and Jewish Demographic Transformation” (15th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 2009), 27.
 Tolts, “Post-Soviet Aaliyah and Jewish Demographic Transformation,” 1–3.
 Ruth Eglash, “Fleeing their Country’s Civil War, Ukrainian Jews Head for Israel,” Washington Post, December 25, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/f leeing-their-countrys-civil-war-ukrainian-jews-head-for-israel/2014/12/24/f79fb866-8619-11e4-b9b7-b8632ae73d25_story.html.
 Cnaan Liphshiz, “Russia and Ukraine Provided Israel with Majority of Immigrants in 2017,” The Times of Israel, February 26, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-and-ukraine-provided-israel-with-majority-of-immigrants-in-2017/.
 Bar Peleg, “Most Aid Requests by Ukrainian Refugees in Israel are for Food, but Funding Relies on Civil Society,” HaAretz, April 17, 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-most-aid-requests-by-ukrainians-in-israel-are-for-food-but-funding-relies-on-ngos-1.10747332.