From ashes to ashes

This summer's war was yet another nail in the once-grand Georgian Jewish community's coffin. So why aren't they making aliya?

Georgia refugees 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Georgia refugees 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
At first we're not sure if this is the right place. The building we are standing in front of appears to be derelict. Most of the windows are without glass, the elevator is boarded up and the staircase leading up through all nine floors is cracked and broken. Nearby some young boys, no more than 14, sit on a bench smoking cigarettes and ask us who we are looking for. When we tell them, they respond that we are in the right place, this is the home of Badri Iosebashvili. After climbing what seems like more than a hundred uneven steps up to the top floor and walking through an unlit hallway, Iosebashvili, 23, greets us in front of a peeling wooden door with a shy smile and shows us into his humble abode. "Humble" is probably an exaggeration here. The apartment is spacious by Georgian standards, but the big, single-pane windows and lack of central heating mean that the family, which consists of Iosebashvili, his mother, wife and 19-month-old son Merab, can only really live comfortably in one room. The rest of the apartment is colder than it is outside and we can see our breath evaporate into the air. We file into the cramped living room, which doubles as a bedroom, dining room, and even a kitchen, and find places to sit, trying to avoid the couple's bed. There is a strong smell of gasoline from the small heating element, mixed with severe rising damp seeping down from the blackened ceiling. In the corner a small, old-fashioned TV set gives off blurred images. Maka, Iosebashvili's young wife, holds the baby tightly. "He has a slight fever," she sighs as if to apologize for his somber mood. "He usually has more life than this." Iosebashvili, whose father was Jewish, takes over the interview, explaining that "this is the only room in the apartment we can use. We only have one heater and it's too cold everywhere else." Later he shows me another room that could possibly be a bedroom if only the family had enough money to heat or furnish it. Iosebashvili, who has lived in this apartment his entire life, inherited it when his father died, but the fact that he does not have to pay rent does not make life in Gori - a town of some 50,000 residents located roughly 30 minutes' drive north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, any easier. "Things were getting better before the war," laments Iosebashvili, who worked part-time doing odd jobs before the brewing conflict between Georgia and Russia reached a head in August. "I did have some work before then, but now no one has any money to hire me. I've been looking but there's nothing." During the conflict, the town, which happens to be the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, came under heavy bombardment from Russian air strikes. Many families, Iosebashvili's included, were forced to flee their homes and took refuge in Tbilisi. The Russian army took over the area with ease. The war, which lasted from August 7-12 and was fought in the border areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a short distance north of Gori, has left an uneasy peace across the region and caused a serious deterioration in living conditions, with hunger and atrocious accommodation topping the list. However, for many of the country's 15,000 Jews, Georgia is still the only home they have known, and the efforts of the last 20 years to rebuild the community really shone through during the conflict, with many people committed to making it even stronger. The truth is that those who wanted to emigrate to Israel have already done so - some 147 Georgian Jews made aliya in an effort to escape the escalating conflict with Russia - and for the rest, the reasons not to leave might vary slightly according to age but the final proclamation is usually the same: This is our home and we want to make life better here. "I have many relatives in Israel," says Diana, 19, who grew up in Gori but is now studying medicine in Tbilisi. "I was there over the summer when the war broke out here, but for the moment I like being here. My family is here and I am in the middle of my studies. For me to go now and learn a new language would not be practical." This sentiment is echoed by students active in Tbilisi's Hillel organization. While most say they have been to Israel - either by way of the week-long experiential birthright program or privately to visit family - they feel that their future is to stay in Georgia and help reestablish the Jewish community. "The economy in Georgia was progressing until the war broke out," claims Vito, 18, an economics major at one of the local colleges. "The war was a stupid thing to have happened, but I think that I can help my people if I stay here." Another student, who is studying architecture and is part of Hillel's Young Leadership program, chimes in: "When I finish studying, I want to help rebuild my community." "I see my future here," says another of the students. "My country is developing and I am going to stay." "I can't say that things are perfect here but at least I know where I am, I can speak the language and my friends and family are nearby," says Ecka, a pharmacology student who also assists with the programming at Hillel. WHILE the Hillel students find it difficult to express why they feel so connected to Israel or committed to being Jewish in Georgia, when asked about their experiences during the recent war, the descriptions of their actions speak louder than the words. Their young eyes light up as they each delight in describing how they took turns to help out at Tbilisi's Jewish community center, tracking down Jews from Gori, helping them find accommodation and driving round the city to provide them with food and healthcare packages. "I worked with the children that came here from Gori," says one of the female students. "We ran a summer camp for them and took them to places that would cheer them up. It was a very stressful situation for them. We had to build them a special program." Another describes how his family took in at least 25 close and distant relatives. "The war was a huge surprise for all of us," observes Revaz Shatashvili, director of the Tbilisi Jewish House, a seven-story structure located in the heart of the capital that was opened five years ago by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with funds from Posner/Molloy family in Pittsburgh. "The Gori Jewish community was in real danger and many of the people who fled their homes came here by foot with only the clothes they were wearing." Shatashvili says that with the help of all the Jewish aid organizations working in the area - the JDC, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Chabad and others - they were able to account for all the Jewish families living in the besieged region. "We worked 24 hours a day for an entire week to make sure all these people were being cared for and that they received the help they needed," he says, adding that representatives of the JDC even risked their lives to reach those who had stayed behind in Gori and deliver food and medical relief. "I hope this situation never repeats itself," says Shatashvili. "However, I believe that we really proved ourselves as a community during this time of need." ACCORDING TO information published by Beth Hatefutsoth, there are two distinct types of Jews living in Georgia - those of European or Ashkenazi descent, who mostly arrived in the area during Soviet times, and the indigenous Sephardi Jews, who can trace their ties to the country back to the sixth century when they arrived here from the Byzantine Empire to settle under the more tolerable Persian regime. Although no official records exist, representatives of the JDC in Georgia estimate that by 1970 roughly 100,000 Jews lived there, with most residing in Tbilisi and the area surrounding Gori. Georgian Jews, it has been documented, were among the first from the Soviet Union to make aliya despite Russian restrictions, and in the 1970s some 30,000 Georgian Jews left the country, either making aliya or emigrating to other places. Today, there is still a steady trickle of Jews moving to Israel, but roughly 15,000 - mostly in Tbilisi, although there are some in the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - still remain in the country. While the majority are elderly, faced with some of the harsh realities of making aliya - including social issues in Israel and immigration requirements - there has been a trend toward Jewish revival and the number of young families with children has definitely increased. The Tbilisi Jewish House is the greatest proof of the Jewish restoration taking place. There is a constant hive of activity from early in the morning, when the pensioners' club meets for its daily dose of Jewish programming and hot kosher meals, to late in the evening, when the center is used for community social gatherings. The pensioners' club room on the first floor is flanked by a large dining room and a free hairdresser's, offering the elderly ladies - it's about 90% women - a chance to primp up. A little further along the corridor is a warehouse, which worked on overdrive during the recent war, and is constantly stocked with the perishable food and health supplies to make up the food baskets for those who cannot make it to the club. The upper floors are for the younger community members. A day-care center with a clear Israel-focused agenda teaches some 15 three- to five-year-olds about Jewish religious festivals and throws in some Hebrew-language tunes. Next door a smaller group of Jewish children, those who are considered developmentally delayed and at risk for a variety of reasons, work through educational tasks with a Jewish social worker who monitors their progress. Aside from the daily programs, there is a Jewish library, a large dance studio where the local Jewish dance group practices for its performances, a basic gym and an events hall that hosts a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish functions. Most of the people we meet here recite the names of family members living in Israel. Ashdod, Hadera and Haifa seem to be the place of destination for aliya-bound Georgian Jews. Some of the people even go to great efforts to greet us in broken Hebrew, and all seem very excited when we say that we're here from Israel. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a non-profit social welfare organization that provides more than $20 million to Jewish projects in the former Soviet Union and close to $10 million to the JDC, says that the Jewish infrastructure in former Soviet states has come a long way in the past 20 years. "International Jewish organizations had a rude awakening 20 years ago when communism started to fall apart," he observes. "There was no safety net and the elderly Jews that could not immigrate to Israel had nowhere to turn. Since then, however, organizations such as the JDC, Chabad, the Jewish Agency and others have worked hard to rebuild these communities and provide them with the basic support to continue existing." Eckstein, who has visited more than 12 locations in the former Soviet Union but has not yet been to Georgia, says that the situation faced by many Jews there is both "appalling and shocking." However, he warns that the current global economic crisis could have a serious impact on the work that is being done in these communities. "I hate to say it but I think the international Jewish community needs to do more to help these people, who can do little to help themselves," says Eckstein, who claims that IFCJ donations are remaining steady because his base is not those most affected by the credit crunch. "It is a privilege to work with such dedicated Jewish organizations but whatever they are doing is not really enough to save these Jewish people in the FSU." IN GORI, a town of close to 1,000 Jews, the situation since the recent war is even more critical. "It was an awful period," recalls Dato Moshiashvilli, director of the Hessed Outreach Center, which provides a wide variety of basic welfare and Jewish renewal programs. Most of the people living here struggle to make ends meet and, even before the war; there was roughly 65 percent unemployment with little help from the government except for a meager old-age pension. "We managed to evacuate as many people as possible from Gori, but there were some who had to stay behind because of old age or sickness," says Moshiashvilli. "For them, we had to come back and deliver food aid and healthcare packages. After the Russian troops moved in, however, it was almost impossible to get into or out of the city." We are sitting together in the community center's main room, where Moshiashvilli and his wife, Tia, who runs the Children's Initiative, treat us to some of Georgia's finest culinary delicacies: khachapuri, a puff pastry filled with extra-sour cream cheese, and warm tea. The room is usually used as a soup kitchen to feed elderly Jews who have no other means of feeding themselves. The rudimentary kitchen also puts together close to 100 food packages that are sent to those who cannot physically make the journey to the pantry. In another smaller room, teenagers sit in front of computer screens and learn how to navigate the Internet, while upstairs on the top floor, the Jewish children of Gori, roughly 60 clients of the Children's Initiative, a fairly new program backed by the JDC and the IFCJ, are dancing and singing at their daily cultural club. The mood is upbeat and the children, who later treat us to some traditional Georgian songs and dances, do not seem to let their social conditions get in the way of having some fun. Since August, Moshiashvilli says most of the center's work has been focused on rebuilding morale. Monthly food stipends, distributed by way of a special credit card to needy pensioners and families with children, have been increased slightly and a program of psychological counseling has been launched. According to Tia, it is the emotional scars that have cut deepest into this community since the conflict, which left more than 1,000 people dead in the region and even destroyed houses belonging to members of the Jewish community. "Did you hear the helicopter flying overhead earlier today?" she asks over our second cup of tea. "People here were frightened all over again when they heard it. They thought the war was coming back again." Additional funds raised by the JDC and IFCJ during the war mean that a psychologist is now regularly on hand to provide individual and group counseling to all of the community's age groups, from the very small to the old and frail. "The group therapy is much more effective," claims psychologist Svetlana Siordin, who has been working mainly with the middle-aged and their children since the summer. "People's problems often get solved much quicker when they are ready to open up and talk about their feelings to the rest of the group. However, there are always some people who find it difficult to talk in front of others." Siordin says that the symptoms being experienced are those of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, she adds that for such a close-knit community that observes extended family traditions, there has been an additional strain on familial relations, especially between parents and children and for those women who share domestic living spaces with their mothers-in-law (the life expectancy of men is 59 in Georgia and therefore most of the elderly are women who live with their families). "There are many people who say they still cannot sleep at night and suddenly get fearful about any sound they might hear out in the street," says Siordin, adding that there has also been an increase in aggressiveness among the younger generation. On the bright side, however, Moshiashvilli says that the Jewish community is "stronger than ever before. There was panic during the war period, but when we all returned home to Gori, people felt even more connected to the Jewish community here. Jews really pulled together during the war and it made a real difference."