21 years after Chernobyl

While Chabad has helped some 2,500 Jewish children overcome and escape one of the worst man-made disasters in history, there are still Jews left behind in the danger zone.

chabad chernobyl 88 298 (photo credit: Edgar Asher)
chabad chernobyl 88 298
(photo credit: Edgar Asher)
On April 26, 1986 there occurred in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernobyl a nuclear disaster that is still having an impact on the Ukraine and Belarus 21 years later. It will have a profound influence on these two countries for the foreseeable future. In an unsupervised and improperly arranged experiment, with the water cooling system turned off, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, sending some 190 tons of radioactive uranium and graphite into the atmosphere. The nuclear fallout from the explosion was 90 times greater than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. The reactor's protective roof was blown off and radiation spread across northern Europe, with traces of radioactive uranium soon being recorded as far away as Britain and Sweden. At least 13,000 people involved in the "clear-up" operation reportedly died in the following years from radiation poisoning. About 400,000 people were evacuated out of the immediate area of the blast, and 2,000 villages were demolished. As the years went by, it was clear that the medical consequences of the accident had been completely underestimated and even today the health of the local population cannot be properly assessed. It soon became apparent that countless numbers of children born after the disaster were showing signs of dramatic genetic disorders and mental conditions. Thyroid cancer became prevalent and serious congenital birth defects were reportedly increasing by 250 percent following the explosion. Some children were born with the most grotesque disfigurements and profound mental disabilities. Parents were abandoning such newly-born children in the streets, filling the orphanages and hospitals in the area far beyond their capacity and medical capabilities. Over 90% of Belarus was affected by various amounts of contamination, and the northern part of Ukraine was also variously affected as far away as some 300 km. south of the explosion. Yossie Raichik, the director of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl, takes up the story. "At the time nobody really understood just how bad Chernobyl was. For the first 72 hours after the explosion the Russian government denied everything. Remember that the Ukraine was then part of the former Soviet Union. With higher-than-usual radioactive fallout being recorded as far away as Sweden, the Russian government admitted to the world that there was a problem. The Russians decided to evacuate a 30-km. radius from the explosion. The evacuation was 'Russian style' - they come in at night and tell you to pack a suitcase because you are leaving your home next day. People were under the false impression that everything outside a 30-km. radius was OK." It took the Russians three or four years to realize that there was a major problem. Thousands of children were being born with deformities. Fruits and vegetables were growing unusually large and were full of isotopes. Slowly, the government admitted that the radiation went beyond the 30-km. zone. Six years after Chernobyl, the Jewish communities in the area started to turn to Jewish organizations around the world for tangible help, including to the Chabad worldwide Jewish outreach movement that acts in more than 100 countries. According to movement publications, almost one million children participate in its activities annually. "Chabad was the first organization to respond positively, because most Jewish organizations felt that they did not have the experience or the know-how to attempt to help. For everybody it was an unknown area," explains Raichik. "Nobody knew what was the effect of mass radiation and what the kids were suffering from." Representatives of local Jewish organizations even approached a Christian organization in Holland called "Noah's Ark." This organization deals with children in any distressed area in the world, but they too had limited expertise in doing something meaningful. At the same time, one of the community representatives also approached Yossi Kogan, a member of Chabad who came originally from St. Petersburg and now lives in Israel. They asked Kogan if Chabad could help remove the kids from the affected area. Chabad representatives at the time had also said, "What can we do? We don't know anything about problems of radiation." "Kogan decided that this was not a good enough answer, so he wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe," recounts Raichik, referring to the late Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn who died in 1994. "Kogan told the Rebbe that Jewish communities in the Ukraine and Belarus were asking for urgent help. Chabad, like many other organizations, had said they cannot help - it's not their field. The Rebbe, obviously moved by the disaster, wrote a short note to Chabad rabbis in Israel saying 'Who is going to help these children?' The Rebbe never told people that they have to do something, but it was clear from his note nevertheless that he wanted something positive and meaningful to be done to help. That's how Chabad got involved." In August 1990 the newly created "Children of Chernobyl" project brought to Israel the first batch of 196 children. Since then, almost 2,500 children have been brought to Israel on 76 special flights. Over 1,500 of these children have been reunited with their parents in Israel. The most recent of these flights was on April 25, when 16 children were airlifted to Israel. "There are still thousands of Jews in the affected area," Raichik points out. "They cannot just get up and go. There are both financial and physical problems about moving from their towns and villages. Also if they did move they would not have a job to go to. Even where they are now they barely have enough money to subsist on." Chabad also sends food, blankets and medical supplies to the general population in the affected region; in fact anybody in need, irrespective of nationality or religion. The children in Kfar Chabad today were born long after the disaster. A child born today is in greater danger than one who was born before the original nuclear fallout. Before the disaster a child had built up his immune system. Today he is even ingesting radiation while developing inside his mother's body. The radiation is as strong today as it was on the day of the explosion. The first half-life, when this variety of radioactive material begins to lose its potency, is after 27 to 28 years. "People live in the region in denial, they live in a bubble. They only come to realize the severity of the problem when somebody gets sick," says Raichik. The health of the Chernobyl children in Kfar Chabad is carefully and regularly monitored by experienced medical staff on the campus. Pediatricians, psychologists and dentists watch for any indication of radiation-induced diseases, particularly thyroid cancer problems. Children at high risk are examined on a daily basis, with all medical care being supervised by Hadassah Hospital. All the children are given sufficient clothing and housed in attractive rooms. They receive a good general education which has even seen a few of them entering Israeli universities. Young Russian-speaking volunteers from Kfar Chabad give individual tuition to children who might find the educational curriculum, or the Hebrew, a bit difficult. There are plenty of sports and first-class computer facilities for both work and leisure. Chabad funds all the requirements of each child, and it is estimated that on average it costs about $23,000 to keep each child at Kfar Chabad for a 20-month stay. "As far as the population in the affected areas is concerned, unfortunately the worst is yet to come," says Raichik. "For the children who have been fortunate to come to Israel, the best is yet to come."