Achim Program Connects Refugees with Torah and Mitzvot Through Community
Hundreds of Ukrainian olim will celebrate Pesach for the first time in their lives this month, thanks to an initiative of OU Israel. The Achim (Brothers) program provides physical and spiritual support to the thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have made Aliyah in the past year. The program will run four sedarim in Nahariya, Akko, Haifa and Nof Hagalil — regions where most of the new olim reside — and more than 500 participants have registered to date.
Since 1993, the OU has been sending shlichim (emissaries) to Kharkiv, Ukraine who have helped to build and maintain a vibrant Jewish life for its roughly 45,000 Jews by establishing a school, synagogue, yeshiva and dormitories, and leading Shabbat and holiday services and meals for 600 people annually.
When the conflict began a year ago, about 25 shlichim returned to the region to help with the evacuation efforts of Jews at the Polish border.
“The shlichim have a connection with many of the olim because we lived and worked there for 24 years,” said OU Israel Director of Programs Chaim Pelzner, who, along with his wife Merav and two daughters, served as shlichim in Kharkiv from 1999 to 2022. “Many Russian Jews have also made Aliyah in the past year because they’re afraid Putin is going to close the gates to the West. We need to help them now, when they need us. We have the responsibility. We planted the idea first and encouraged them to come to Israel all those years ago.”
Pelzner estimates that Achim has helped about 1000 Ukrainian olim to acclimate in Israel in the past year with everything from assisting them at the airport, helping to translate and certify documents, providing shelter, clothing and food and finding them employment. As men ages 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, the majority of the refugees are women, and Achim has established a Women’s Circle in each of the four regions where 150 women attend weekly shiurim and bonding activities.
“People call us for everything,” said Pelzner. “Six families have asked for hotplates and kettles for Shabbat and 40 have asked for mezuzot. Our second objective, after helping them materially, is to bring the olim closer to Torah and mitzvot. There are many people who know nothing about Judaism. We are making a connection with them by establishing a sense of community, and the seders are an extension of that.”
Organized by department head Koranit Lanksner, each of the four seders will be conducted with Russian translation and will include tefillot (prayers), songs, children’s games, a festive meal and an exploration of OU’s new Haggadah featuring Russian translation and transliteration. This will be the first seder for the majority of refugees.
“The OU takes responsibility for the future of Am Yisrael,” said Pelzner. “We want to help to establish the next generation of Jews who feel a sense of belonging. If we want Am Yisrael to be strong and keep Torah and mitzvot, this is the perfect time to be there for them, to look them in the eyes and to say, ‘We’re here for you. We’re brothers.’”