JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
More Jews may remain in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region than previously reported, according to estimates provided by the World Jewish Congress and that country’s chief rabbi.
The region has been engulfed in a civil war between Moscow-backed separatists and forces loyal to Kiev for months.
In September Pinchas Vishedski, the rabbi of Donetsk, a city of one million residents and the center of the insurgency, estimated that several hundred to 1,000 Jews remained out of a prewar population of over 10,000. Officials connected with Hesed, a network of social services centers sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC ) and Claims Conference, have stated that over 2,000 of their clients still live in the shattered streets of Donetsk, Luhansk and the surrounding towns and villages.
Thousands of Jews have left the region, most scattering to cities around the country. According to the Jewish Agency, some 4,200 Ukrainians have immigrated to Israel so far this year.
These numbers, however, do not reflect the total number of Jews left behind in the region, according to World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, who recently visited Ukraine. After meeting with JDC and community officials, he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that he believes that “there are four to five thousand Jews who still live in these areas, mainly in Donetsk and in Luhansk and the small cities around these.”
Accurate figures reflecting the dispersal of the Jews of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region are difficult to obtain, especially in a country where it was already hard to gauge local populations in times of peace. Significant numbers of those displaced staying with relatives and not registering with the local communities in the cities to which they have escaped and many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have moved several times, making tracking arduous.
Yaakov Dov Bleich, the American born chief Rabbi, agreed with Singer that the numbers reported in the press thus far have been low, but gave a different set of figures for those left behind.
He said that Vishedski’s estimate only included those directly connected to Jewish communal bodies in Donetsk and that there may be as many as ten thousand Jews left throughout Donbas.
There are many who it is impossible to account for because they are “in Russia or because they are in places that they are just not in contact with the Jewish community.”
In Bleich’s opinion, “there are probably between 8-10,000 people that are no longer in the region and probably between 8-10,000 that are still in the region.”
Fully half of the region’s 6,500 elderly Jews may still be there, he said.
JDC officials have expressed concern over the fate of elderly Jews in the war zone, given the strong possibility of fuel shortages this winter and the considerable damage done to infrastructure by the war.