In Lugansk, an icy Ukraine winter tests a war-torn community

In an unheated synagogue with no running water, a dozen Jews are trying to keep warm as temperatures here veer toward the single digits.

Not moving too much helps keep the warmth under their thick coats, they say, a technique developed as the group gathered at least once a week to maintain a sense of community in a city torn by ongoing conflict between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army.

“We usually stay for about two hours,” says Igor Leonidovich, the synagogue’s gabbai, or caretaker. “We pray for peace. In this cold, two hours is enough.”

Half of Lugansk’s population of 425,000 has fled since July, when the fighting that claimed some 4,500 lives erupted in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Among those who fled were two-thirds of the city’s nurses and doctors, according to the World Health Organization, rendering medical services almost nonexistent.

Earlier this month, a psychiatric institution in the Lugansk suburb of Slavyanoserbsk reported that 50 of its patients died from cold and exhaustion. Like many parts of Lugansk and the surrounding area, the hospital had no electricity, heat or water.

About 2,000 Jews remain — a fifth of the Lugansk prewar community — but even that determined group is struggling now that the winter cold has arrived.

“We stay because it’s our birthplace, our land,” says Leonidovich, who draws encouragement from the fact that fighting in Lugansk proper has largely died down in recent weeks after a truce went into effect in September. “We don’t want to leave, but it’s getting harder to stay because of winter.”

Near the synagogue, a few elderly people rummage for blankets in heaps of uncollected garbage on a street scarred by mortar craters and littered with the carcasses of abandoned pets. In the distance, explosions can be heard echoing from the suburbs.

As they face these hardships, Lugansk Jews have received assistance from international Jewish groups, including food from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or IFCJ. The distribution of the packages has been coordinated in part by the Lugansk Chabad emissary in exile, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, who is in Israel.

Earlier this month, some 300 people gathered at the synagogue to receive food packages from the IFCJ, the second such distribution in recent weeks. The donation of a generator last month provided the synagogue with lights for the first time since the power went out in August.

On Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening, the community plans to light candles in the synagogue during the day because of a rebel-imposed curfew that restricts movement after dark. Traveling at night also increases the chance of falling prey to the robbers and looters who have emptied the city’s supermarkets and car rental agencies.

Being openly Jewish in Lugansk is not particularly dangerous because the rebels who control the city generally do not display anti-Semitic attitudes, Leonidovich says.

Asked whether Lugansk was in any way extra dangerous for Jews, a rebel officer who identified himself only as Vladimir tells JTA, “There is no racism here. If a person, Jewish or Christian, is law abiding, they will not be harmed.”

Even without being specifically targeted, the dangers in Lugansk are evident. In July, the Jewish community lost two of its members, Svetlana and Anna Sitnikov, in the fighting. The mother and daughter died instantly when a mortar round exploded outside a grocery where they had gone to fetch food for Anna’s 5-year-old son.

Like many septuagenarians here, Ernst Kuperman, one of the synagogue regulars, has not been able to collect his pension for months. He gets by thanks to JDC’s Hesed program, which provides the needy with food and medical services.

Others, like Anna Sosnova, who was wounded over the summer by an explosion near her home, would have left but stayed because of family obligations. Sosnova’s house has electricity, but she still had to get a generator to administer drugs to her mother, a bedridden diabetic with only one leg.

“There is no way currently to safely get her out,” Sosnova says.

During the fighting, a mortar round exploded near the small house that the Sosnovas share with three cats and a puppy left behind by neighbors. The explosion weakened an external wall and the house has been slowly collapsing, developing cracks and shifting. Some doors can’t be closed.

“I hope it won’t collapse on us,” Sosnova says.

Across the city, many buildings carry similar scars from the shelling that brought life here to a halt this summer. The situation is even worse in the outskirts, where vast sunflower fields that should have been harvested in the fall are withering in the snow along roads dotted with burned-out tanks that lead to shelled ghost towns.

Before the fighting, the Beit Menachem Jewish school here had more than 150 students. But they never returned to school after the summer vacation and now are scattered across Russia, Israel and Ukraine, according to Sergei Kreidun, the principal.

Although the school is empty, Kreidun still arrives daily to deter looters. He shows off the spacious campus, which has a small Holocaust museum and kosher kitchen, with a mix of pride and melancholy. Pride for what he has helped build over the past 15 years with funding from the Ohr Avner Foundation, melancholy over what became of the school.

“As you can see, we’re ready for the kids here,” he says, gesturing toward a locker containing a former student’s books and hairbrush. “Now all we need is the peace that will bring them back.”


Project to lure Jews out of Iran proves unsuccessful

Australian TV news crew visits Jews in TehranFollowing the revelation in October that $10,000 per person was being offered by a Chicago-based Christian-Jewish nonprofit to encourage Jews to leave Iran and immigrate to Israel, organizers of the project in Israel and the United States admitted to being disappointed with the lack of response to their efforts.

The offer will end this month at the conclusion of the one-year project.

Begun in January by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has offices in Chicago and Jerusalem, the program offers funding through the Jewish Agency in Israel, which spearheaded it. IFCJ officials reported that of the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, only 125 have accepted the funds.

As tensions between Iran and the United States and Israel have become increasingly heated, the IFCJ has stepped up efforts to promote Jewish immigration, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ director in Jerusalem.

“If there is an attack by either the United States or Israel on Iran, it seems clear to me that even the Iranian Jews know it would be too late at that point for them to get out or not be persecuted,” Eckstein said. “In my opinion, they are playing a very dangerous game of not committing to come out to Israel.”

During a visit to Orange County last month, Eckstein said his organization initially offered $5,000 a person but increased the amount to $10,000 when the response among Jews in Iran was tepid.

The Jewish Agency has an ongoing program offering $13,000 for every Jewish family leaving Iran, but Eckstein said his organization was asked to provide additional funds per person as a bonus incentive to help those Jews who would otherwise be unable to support themselves if they left the country.

“I think there are some stereotypes [in the greater American Jewish community] that these [Iranian Jewish] people are rich; that they’ll only come to Israel to be rich — when in fact, these people come out with nothing because of the inflation,” Eckstein said. “And their money is worthless when they leave Iran. But the $10,000 has been enough to tip the scales for them to make the move, because it will help them get on their feet in Israel.”

For the past 25 years, the IFCJ has given millions of dollars solicited from evangelical Christians in the United States to help Jews immigrate to Israel from the former Soviet Union, India, Argentina and the United States. Some evangelicals believe that the return of Jews to Israel will hasten Christ’s second coming.

For their part, Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish groups said they were unaware and not involved in the project undertaken by the Jewish Agency and IFCJ. While local Iranian Jewish leaders declined to comment on the immigration project for fear that their statements might be used by the Iranian government to seek retribution on their brethren in Iran, they said they were concerned for the safety of Iran’s Jews.

“Considering the rhetoric that emanates from Iran, anyone who knows anything about Jewish history should be extremely concerned about the future of that community,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation based in Los Angeles.

Eckstein said the Jewish Agency only approached Iranian Jewish groups in New York for assistance, and the community provided $200,000 for the project. Iranian Jews in Los Angeles were not approached for any financial support.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said a substantial number of Jews continue to stay in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

“Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime,” Nikbakht said, “while some have converted to Islam or other ‘safer’ religions, such as Christianity, to help them survive.”

According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, since 1979 at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

The issue of Jewish immigration from Iran is particularly sensitive for local Iranian Jewish leaders. Since the early 1980s, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has helped thousands of Jews escaping Iran to resettle in Israel and the United States. For the most part, its work has gone on under the media radar in order not to embarrass the Iranian government. The process varies for different people and can take anywhere from nine months to a couple of years.

Eckstein said his organization did not go to the media about the project until after Jewish Agency officials gave interviews to the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in October. A Jewish Agency spokesperson in Israel downplayed the potential danger of publicizing efforts to bring Jews out of Iran.

“Publicizing this project does not jeopardize the lives of the Iranian Jews; the opposite is true, and it shows that Jews worldwide care about their situation,” said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman.

Eckstein said the Iranian government did not object to the Jewish Agency and IFCJ efforts after seeing that the Jewish community in Iran was unwilling to leave the country. In fact, members of Iran’s regime have used the lack of Jewish emigration to Israel for propaganda purposes, including releasing stories on state-run television and wire news outlets, showing Jews speaking favorably about the regime.

Jewish leaders in Iran criticized the offer made by the IFCJ in a statement, saying, “The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradable for any amount of money. Iran’s Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and this immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out the identity of Iranian Jews.”

Local Iranian Jewish leaders said any comments made by their brethren in Iran to the international media lacks credibility, because such statements are often made under duress from the Iranian regime.