NEW YORK – Forty teens from Donetsk and other areas affected by the Ukrainian civil war have been brought to Israel for the summer by the Jewish Agency.
The youngsters, aged 14 to 17, are staying at a camp in Kibbutz Kalya near the northern Dead Sea.
The Jewish communities of Donetsk, Luhansk and other places in Ukraine’s Donbas region have begun to disintegrate under the pressure of the Moscow-backed insurgency and Kiev’s military campaign to stamp it out.
While communication with those left in rebel-held areas has been spotty at best, it is clear that a significant portion of the Jewish residents of those towns have left, including senior community leaders.
In Donetsk, Chabad Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, an Israeli, has stayed behind, while Luhansk Rabbi Shalom Gopin, who fled to western Ukraine, has sent several teams of young men to sneak back into the city to facilitate the exit of their co-religionists.
By the end of July, the American Joint Distribution Committee was taking care of 500 refugees in Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa, according to website eJewish- Philanthropy.com.
Between 150 and 200 other refugees are staying at a converted summer camp in Zhitomir organized by Chabad and sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
A total of 2,773 people immigrated to Israel from Ukraine between January and August, up 146 percent from the corresponding period in 2013, according to figures the Immigration and Absorption Ministry released last week. Donetsk had 11,000 Jews before the war, according to the local community.
The Jewish Agency released its own immigration figures on Thursday, stating that it has brought out some 400 Jews from the war zone.
The exodus, while small in comparison with Ukraine’s overall Jewish population of as many as 180,000, includes Jews from all over the country and not merely from the conflict areas. Inflation, political instability and other factors have made emigration a tempting prospect for many.
As of the end of July, the Jewish Agency reported, 509 Jews had arrived from Odessa, 666 from Kharkov, 338 from Dnepropetrovsk, 114 from Simferopol and 305 from Kiev.
The issue of Jewish immigration has a political dimension as well, with the IFCJ having announced that it will bring in several planeloads of refugees on its own, in what seems to be an effort to bypass the Jewish Agency.
Asked about what role the Jewish Agency, the body officially responsible for aliya, will play in the flights, IFCJ President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein replied that as a private organization, “we can do this better and quicker, with better results by seizing the moment.”
Eckstein, the former chairman of the agency’s Aliya and Rescue Committee, has been critical of the organization’s 2009 strategic shift, which emphasized identity and community building and which closed down the body’s aliya department, merging it with several other departments.
During an acrimonious debate at an agency board meeting in 2011, Eckstein panned the agency’s new direction, asking if it “is not committed to having aliya as the sin que non of what the Jewish Agency does, then what does it do?” In response, Misha Galperin, the agency’s senior North American fund-raiser, replied that “in order for people to make aliya you have to have Jews and strengthen their identity but this is all over and above part of our central mission, which is aliya.”
Asked about Eckstein’s plans, an Immigration and Absorption Ministry spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the ministry “is working with full cooperation with all the relevant organizations that work regarding aliya from the Ukraine... We welcome any initiative that is supposed to promote aliya from the Ukraine or worldwide.”
JTA contributed to this report.