Despite escalating violence and the concomitant mass exodus of refugees fleeing from the civil war in Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region, the Jewish community in the city, the center of the pro-Russian insurgency, is doing its best to hold itself together.
With the Ukrainian army tightening the noose around the capital of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, retaking suburbs surrounding the city of one million inhabitants and rebel leader Alexander Borodai promising Kiev “another Stalingrad,”many residents of the country’s east with the ability to leave, have sought refuge elsewhere.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by telephone from a refugee camp in the northwestern city of Zhitomir, Rabbi Shalom Gopin of Luhansk said that many members of his community have fled. “Everyone who could…left,” he said.
There are those who are too sick or old to move and have remained in the city, he continued, calling the situation there “decidedly not simple.”
Almost all of Luhansk’s youth have left, with many taking refuge in Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Kharkov and Russian- controlled Crimea, he said. While the rabbi said that determining the exact prewar Jewish population of Luhansk is difficult, “a few hundred out of several thousand still remain in the war torn city.”
Daniel Sklyarov is a 16-yearold refugee in Zhitomir. His parents, both dual Ukrainian-Israeli citizens, remained behind in Luhansk. It is dangerous back in Luhansk and he worried about his family.
“How can I not feel badly when my family is in Luhansk?” he asked rhetorically.
In Donetsk, however, the community has managed to maintain a measure of cohesion, according to Pinchas Vishedski, a local rabbi.
It is impossible to determine how many of the city’s prewar Jewish population of 11,000 have fled, he said, but the community sent hundreds of people west to places like the Zhitomir refugee camp.
However, he cautioned, not everybody had the means or ability to leave.
“I don’t know how many but I can tell you that there are still Jews here,” he said, adding that he decided to stay behind in Donetsk in order to keep the community going despite the war raging around them.
“We are attempting in this impossible situation to maintain communal life,” he said.
“We are doing everything to continue to operate under favorable conditions.”
Moshe, 23, is one of the remaining young people in Donetsk. He declined to provide his last name due to security considerations. Most of his contemporaries have already fled and he is looking for an exit as well, he said.
He has pitched in and helped to provide aid for other Jews stuck in the city.
“Most [of my friends] are currently not here, some of them left with their families and some stayed with their families but for the most part they are not here already,” he said. “There are almost no people on the streets.”
According to the rabbi, over a hundred people attended Shabbat services in the local synagogue over the weekend and the Jewish community center and kosher restaurant adjacent to the synagogue are both still open.
“There are elderly [people] who don’t have the ability to leave and we have a telephone line open all day for people to call, even on shabbat and we bring them help, food or medicine or anything else. We are here for them,” he said.
The community recommended that families with children leave the city and that anybody seeking a secure haven can turn to Vishedski for financial aid to help cover the costs of a move.
In the meantime, 250 families with children receive food packages from the community, much of which is paid for by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
“It’s dangerous here but there is no situation where one hundred percent of the people can leave and so we are here to help people. I cant leave because I have a responsibility to the people who remain here and no matter how hard or dangerous, I remain to discharge my obligation to these people and to heaven.”