Each time he dispatches a car into Lugansk, Rabbi Shalom Gopin readies himself for hours of anxious anticipation.
The scene of brutal urban warfare between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, this eastern Ukrainian city now has no regular power supply, running water or cell phone reception. Mortar rounds can fall without warning. Much of the population, once 450,000, has fled.
But despite the risks, Gopin, the city’s exiled chief rabbi, has dispatched over a dozen cars to Lugansk, each one intended to quietly ferry Jews to a camp he runs for the internally displaced in Zhytomyr, near Kiev. More than 117,000 people are internally displaced within Ukraine, the United Nations reported earlier this month.
Recently, Rabbi Gopin welcomed several cars to Zhytomyr carrying a total of 13 passengers. For Gopin, each arrival brings relief, but also sadness over the disintegration of a community he has spent 15 years building.
Initially intended to provide temporary shelter for Jews fleeing the fighting in the east, the facility, which functions mainly as a summer camp, is now home to 250 displaced Ukrainians. Gopin says more than half have no plans to return.
“It’s a sad reality,” Gopin told JTA. “Many people are now realizing the bad situation may remain, so people who never even thought about making aliyah are going ahead with it. The city, my home, is emptying of Jews as it slowly consumes itself out of existence.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for facilitating immigration to Israel, is expecting more than 3,000 arrivals from Ukraine this year – a 33 percent increase over the 1,982 Jews who immigrated in 2013.
More than 1,550 individuals have immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in the first five months of 2014 alone, more than double the 693 who arrived in the corresponding period last year.
Hundreds of the new immigrants hail from Lugansk, a city of 7,000 Jews. Many others come from Donetsk, a rebel-held city with more than 10,000 Jews that is under constant shelling as government forces prepare to storm it.
“My sense is that 80 to 90 percent of the Jewish population of Donetsk already emptied out of the city, including my own family,” said Sasha Ivashchenko, who fled the city last month and is waiting to make aliyah with his wife. The couple married recently in a ceremony in Donetsk held with the background noise of bombardments by Ukrainian warplanes.
In Zhytomyr, Alexander, a refugee in his 50s who asked to be identified only by his first name, fled Lugansk after three men with rifles entered his small packing factory in the city’s industrial zone and informed him it had been “commandeered for the city’s defense.” One of the men, who Alexander believes were pro-Russian separatists, asked him to leave.
“So now even if the fighting stops, I expect there will be very little for me to come back to,” Alexander said. “I stayed here because this was my place, my business. Now there’s no point.”
When Alexander left the city late last month, public transportation was still operating. But rail traffic ground to a halt on July 26 following the shelling of the train station, effectively trapping much of the population – including hundreds of elderly Jews – in a city that many warn is the site of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Currently there are 47 urgent cases of Jews in need of rescue, according to Eleonora Groisman, the founder of a nonprofit that maintains a database of Jews seeking rescue. Among them is a woman in her 80s trapped inside her Lugansk apartment.
Getting such people out is a complex and risky operation that requires traversing a circuitous route through Russian territory and greasing the palms of forces encountered along the way.
Using his contacts with rebel leaders, Rabbi Gopin has established an escape route in which a driver picks up the evacuees in Lugansk, crosses the border into Russia and then returns to Ukraine farther north in an area not held by separatists.
“You have to understand, the rebel-held area and its surroundings are totally lawless,” said Gopin, a Chabad emissary who first settled in Lugansk 15 years ago. “So the car could get stopped and detained or turned back by rebels, suspicious government forces or even thieves preying on the helpless – complications that increase exponentially what is already a serious risk.”
To deal with such possibilities, Rabbi Gopin provides his drivers with an envelope full of cash for bribes.
“Luckily, we’re talking about bribes at around the $50 or $70, so that’s still affordable,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jerusalem-based organization that has spent millions providing relief to Jews in Ukraine.
To outsiders – and even to some Ukrainians – the decision by thousands of Jews to remain in a war zone seems incomprehensible. But it’s no mystery to Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, who was born in Donetsk.
“The Jews who stayed, they are the hardcore,” said Sharansky. “They’ve watched friends and family leave throughout the 1990s and after, choosing every time to stay. But there comes a time when reality trumps even the hardcore.”