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Should Messianic Jews Return to Israel from Russia and Ukraine?

Leaders of Russian-speaking followers of Yeshua discuss whether making aliyah is a commandment, a blessing, or a choice.
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Should Messianic Jews Return to Israel from Russia and Ukraine?
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Image: Pexels / Unsplash

Jews should leave Russia if they can.

The stark warning was issued by Pinchas Goldschmidt, the former chief rabbi of Moscow, as 2022 came to a close. After 30 years in office, he left two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine and later revealed the Kremlin pressured him to support the war—“or else.”

A student of history, he fears Jews will again become scapegoats as the government tries to “redirect the anger and discontent of the masses.”

The resulting question: Where does God want them to go?

Goldschmidt, currently in Israel, has been joined by 41,813 Russian Jewish immigrants since the war began a year ago, according to recent data released by the Knesset. [Editor’s note: On March 15, Goldschmidt updated this figure to 50,000 during a webinar hosted by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. An additional 30,000 Russian Jews have fled to other nations in Europe or the Middle East.] Another 90,000 arrived in Israel without immigrant status. Israel’s immigration minister stated 600,000 Russians are currently eligible.

But according to its 2010 census, Russia has only 156,000 Jews.

The discrepancy comes from the concept of aliyah—the Hebrew word for “ascent”—in which Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent and has not converted to another religion. A controversial coalition deal in the new government includes revising the Law of Return to ensure these olim (immigrants) qualify under religious law—and thus reduce intermarriage. Over 70 percent of last year’s war-induced immigrants are not considered Jewish per Orthodox law, stated the Aliyah and Integration minister.

In many cases, Messianic Jews have been disqualified, and their status is disputed. But last September, the seventh World Conference of Russian-Speaking Messianic Leaders overwhelmingly declared the return to Zion to be a “blessing.”

The only dispute was whether it is also a commandment.

Russian Jews are not the only aspirants. The Knesset stated 13,490 Ukrainian Jews have also immigrated to Israel, as “Operation Homecoming” opened 18 aid centers in Ukraine and neighboring countries. An additional 1,990 Jews immigrated from Belarus.

A 2020 study identified 43,000 Jews in Ukraine—making it one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities—though those eligible to make aliyah could be as high as 200,000.

An estimated 5,000 worship Jesus as Messiah.

Of these, about 1,000 have gone to Germany, where they doubled the local community.

“Aliyah is a certain type of coming home—to the land that belongs to us,” said Vladimir Pikman, executive director of Beit Sar Shalom. “But I don’t see a direct commandment to go to Israel.”

Centered in Berlin, his is the largest Messianic Jewish organization in Europe. Its Hebrew name translates to “House of the Prince of Peace,” and has been a refuge to Ukrainian Jew and Gentile alike, providing translation, logistical help, and trauma care counseling.

They prioritized the special needs of displaced Jews, believers in Jesus included.

He and other Messianic Jewish leaders caution about numbers, as many members are non-Jews who resonate with their worship style and theology. But Kyiv had been a regional center, boasting Europe’s largest congregation with up to 2,000 believers.

These and most other Jews in Ukraine traditionally spoke Russian, with half citing it as their native language. Today only 20 percent say so as, like Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelensky, they are switching in protest to Ukrainian.

Russian-speaking Messianic Jewish congregations are prevalent around the world, however. Chosen People Ministries (CPM) counts at least 75 in the nations of the former Soviet Union, 100 in the rest of the diaspora, and at least 60 in Israel.

The war has split the community, Pikman said. Many fellowships have agreed not to discuss it, and the conference resolved not to let the conflict back home cause conflict abroad. Many delegates were from Ukraine, while most Russians were unable to obtain visas. But the majority of congregations in Russia are not opposed to the war, he said, and the rift with Ukrainians is severe.

German Messianic Jews, though divided themselves, have welcomed all, he said.

Being deliberately provocative at the conference, Pikman cited his country as a counterweight to the idea of Israel being the necessary refuge for suffering Jewry. The modern nation-state is certainly a sign, and he is optimistic the end times are near. But there is no guarantee that the state of Israel will survive or that the children of Abraham will not be scattered once again.

Pikman traveled to Israel 14 years ago to explore the idea of making aliyah. He says God quickly answered no. He sees it as a personal decision and rejoices with those who do emigrate. But just as Paul was not called to stay in Jerusalem, Jews in general—and Messianic Jews in particular—have a mission to the nations.

Israel needs their geopolitical support, he said. And everyone needs the gospel.

“It is always a blessing to be where God wants you to be,” Pikman said. “But doing aliyah, apart from God’s will, is wrong.”

Yet the burden of proof, said one leader, falls on those outside Israel.

Leon Mazin, founder and director of Shavei Zion Ministry in Haifa, said he would “very timidly” tell Jews in the US, Canada, or Europe to “think and direct your eyes and paths to Zion.” But he is “absolutely not shy” about giving such advice to Ukrainians.

“Those already expelled from one diaspora should go to the Promised Land,” he said. “There is no need to go to another diaspora.”

Sixty percent of his congregation—including Mazin himself—came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Others said the same ratio applies to the entire Messianic Jewish community in Israel, which has received 1 million Russian-speaking Jews since 1990. The legacy of Soviet atheism, he has found, has stunted the biblical knowledge of many Jews, especially secular ones.

His organization’s name—Return to Zion, in English—expresses its belief in the importance of aliyah, based on the biblical “dynamic” making clear it is God’s intention for his people to go to Israel. Mazin cites the original command of Genesis 12: “The words that God said to Abraham—‘Lech lecha, go to the land of your forefathers’—have not been canceled.”

He understands that some individuals have a “certain vocation” to stay in the diaspora. “But the majority should come home.”

In the days of the apostles, up to 30 percent of Israel followed the teachings of the man from Nazareth, he said. But today, less than 0.2 percent do.

“We do not so much have to evangelize as rehabilitate the name of Yeshua,” Mazin said, using the Hebrew name for Jesus. He is grateful that the persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel has decreased, and it is much easier to be a Messianic believer in Israel now than in prior decades.

“In the days of the Babylonian captivity, only 42,000 people went home,” he noted. “This indicates that for many it is easier and better in the diaspora. But God’s Word says, ‘Come out of Egypt.’”

Boris Goldin is trying, in obedience to what he views as a divine commandment.

“Sooner or later, we should all go back, whether we want to or not,” said the president of the US-based Association of Russian-Speaking Messianic Jewish Congregations. “But I want to do it truthfully.”

Born in Kyiv to a communist father, the then-secular Jew immigrated to the US in 1989, finding faith two years later. But as a youth he was beaten and cursed for his ethnicity—an antisemitism Ukraine has not yet fully excised, he said, as the 71-year-old continues to see it firsthand.

Today Goldin leads a fellowship in Florida but also spends four to six months every year in Ukraine as country director for CPM. The organization helped a handful of Messianic Jewish women make aliyah since the war, providing financial aid and connections in eastern Europe. But the processing is done individually with Israel, and to avoid complications, one said she was a secular Jew.

Goldin said it is too early to know how the new coalition government will treat aliyah applications by Messianic Jews, and much depends on the local officials. But he has studied the process for the last six years, keen not to deny Yeshua.

He agrees that those leaving Russia and Ukraine should go to Israel, if possible. But those in the diaspora are not necessarily in sin. There is a long tradition of rabbis who knew well the commandment of God to return to the Promised Land yet served faithfully their spiritually displaced people.

Messianic Jews must do the same today, wherever they are, Goldin said.

Another leader, born in Tel Aviv, immigrated to the United States. He disagrees strongly that Jews must return home.

“Israel is the Jewish homeland, a place where all Jewish people should feel welcome and free,” said Dan Sered, chief operating officer of Jews for Jesus (JFJ). “But the answer to this question depends on the individual, deciding how to follow God’s leading.”

Leaving Israel as a teenager, he found Jesus in America and returned in 2000 as a JFJ missionary, later heading the organization’s office in Tel Aviv. Now supervising the global ministry, he resides in New Jersey. But he agrees that in welcoming Russians and Ukrainians, Zion fulfills its purpose as a “safe haven” for diaspora Jews.

For some, it will be increasingly necessary.

“They won’t have a choice,” said Ariel Rudolph, director of operations for Jerusalem Seminary. “Worldwide persecution, either as believers or as Jews, will force them to go.”

Emigrating from South Africa in 1993, he considers making aliyah to be a blessing—though it is not for everyone, and some cannot make it work. But for the nation, it is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones brought back to life.

Michael Zinn, a descendent of Holocaust survivors from Ukraine, referred to “the weeping prophet.”

“This is the hunter stage of Jewish emigration,” said the CPM national director, drawing on Jeremiah 16:16. “There is no doubt that God ultimately wants his people back in the land.”

The disputed interpretation sees a contrast between the “fishermen” who will win Jews to their Messiah and the “hunters” who will force them home. Some say both groups are malign actors. But while the preceding verse speaks of God returning Jews to the land, the following verses put it in the context of punishment for their disobedience.

The leaders interviewed by CT hold varying views on eschatology, but all anticipate the final ingathering of God’s chosen people. It will happen, they say; the question is when. Residing in the diaspora, said Pikman, is akin to life abroad.

“Restoration is attached to our national repentance as Jewish people at the return of Jesus,” he said. “It is nice to be on a business trip, but it is nicer to come home.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber

[ This article is also available in русский and Українська. ]

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