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.”


En route to Lugansk, lies, bribes and high fives

In the backseat of a car headed to the rebel-held city of Lugansk, I was feeling confident about my plan for getting in and out safely to report an article about how the city’s Jewish community is coping with the war ravaging the area.

I had a reliable route and crew, an Israeli passport and a good cover story to help me through the checkpoints spread across the 120 miles that separate the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don from Lugansk, where pro-Russian rebels have for months been fighting Ukrainian government troops.

For anyone that asked, I had come to visit my aunt, Julia Boxerman, with whom my family had lost contact when the fighting broke out over the summer. I was carrying 10 pounds of chocolates and handmade matzahs ahead of Passover.

The cover story was necessary since I work for a U.S.-based news agency in an area where several journalists have been held in the past. Entering from Rostov was another precaution, because it had me entering rebel country from the friendly east rather than from the hostile west.

But despite these precautions, I could feel the anxiety level rise in the car as we neared the border. It was one of several signs of how local Jews prefer to put as much distance as possible between them and the separatists controlling the city.

I first realized my two-person crew — a driver and an interpreter translating from Russian to Hebrew — was on edge when the two passed up the opportunity to nap as we waited motionless for two hours in a long line of automobiles before dawn to cross the border. I asked my interpreter whether she was afraid of the militiamen who would undoubtedly inspect us when we crossed over from Russia.

“I’m not really afraid of them, I just don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.

As I reflected on her answer, a tense silence fell on us, disturbed only by the driver’s rhythmic tapping on the steering wheel.

Finally, we were waved through by the Russians and proceeded for inspection by the militiamen. I was ordered out of the car and ushered into a border post that looked like it had been burned with a flamethrower. The driver stayed in the car, and the interpreter came with me.

Inside, I met my interrogator, a burly man with gold teeth and Russian special forces tattoos. After a short chat, he dryly informed me I would not be able to enter Lugansk.

If this were actually true I would have been turned away already at the checkpoint, so I knew he was open to persuasion.

A few sob stories later, I was alone in the room with him, while he proceeded to systematically look through my bag and coat.

He found one of my two bundles of cash — the second one was deeply concealed — and piled it up on the table. Then he called in my interpreter to explain that the war isn’t going to pay for itself and ask whether I was interested in making a $25 donation. He was also charmed by a 50 shekel bill I had and asked whose portrait was on it. I said it was Shmuel Yosef Agnon, hoping he would not ask where the Israeli author was born (the city of Buchach in western Ukraine, which is not exactly popular these days in rebel-held country).

The interrogator asked where I had served in the Israeli army. Pleased to hear I was a fellow special forces soldier, he gave me a high five and thanked me for my donation. We were let through but ordered to report to rebel headquarters for further investigation by a more senior — and less thuggish — officer named Vladimir.

The contact with the rebels was an unexpected treat because it provided an opportunity to interview them without blowing my cover. I pretended to be asking about the safety of Jews here out of concern for my nonexistent aunt. But the driver and the interpreter were clearly scared as we waited in the parking lot of the Commandatoria, the rebel headquarters in Lugansk, opposite a group of armed teenage rebels who were horsing around while unloading munitions crates from Russia.

My driver had never been to the Commandatoria before, and she sarcastically thanked me for bringing her there.

“They are not bad people, but they are young soldiers who have been through hell the past few months,” she told me. “And then there are the psychos, and war always makes them a little more crazy. But they are not worse  than anywhere else in the world.”

Her defense of the rebels intrigued me. I had heard leaders of Ukrainian Jewry in areas controlled by the government offer passionate condemnations of the rebels, whom they called terrorists. I wanted to ask whether the community in Lugansk shared this outrage.

Most said they wanted there to be peace and described their situation as being “stuck in the middle” — a phrase I heard several times in Lugansk — between government troops and rebels. But others supported the rebels and criticized people like Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian Jewish oligarch and governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, who is something of a national hero further west for bankrolling Ukrainian military operations against the rebels.

“Kolomisky’s actions will boomerang against the Jews,”Igor Leonidovic, the Lugansk synagogue’s caretaker, told me. Leonidovic said his grandfather had been killed by anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. “And now I am being bombarded by their grandsons,” he added.

His view is no exception in a country where nationalistic zeal is so fervent that whole streets on either side of the conflict are covered with hateful graffiti wishing the enemy a slow death, and where many ordinary civilians are so emotionally invested in the war they write slogans with their fingers on the dirty chrome of their cars.

When it was time to leave, my driver, who lives in Lugansk and had driven all night to get me, passed up the paid assignment to take me back and referred me to another driver. The encounter with the rebel soldiers had left him too frazzled.

“I’m sorry, even after we returned I just couldn’t sleep a wink,” he said.


Hundreds of Ukrainian Jews receive aid packages at Lugansk synagogue

Several hundred Jews braved sub-freezing temperatures to receive aid packages at the synagogue in the besieged city of Lugansk.

The distribution of basic necessities on Wednesday by administrators from the east Ukrainian city’s Jewish community drew approximately 300 recipients who stood in line for over an  hour, the community’s rabbi and Chabad emissary to Lugansk, Shalom Gopin, told JTA.

“That so many came despite the cold illustrates the growing needs for assistance in a beleaguered community,” he said. “Winter is only worsening the situation of people who are already finding it increasingly difficult to scrape a living in a war-ravaged place with intermittent electricity.”

Lugansk, which is home to some 2,000 Jews, is under the control of pro-Russian rebels who have been fighting with Ukrainian government troops. Hundreds of combatants and civilians have died in the fighting, which broke out in March.

According to reports, the rebels have agreed in principle on a cease-fire, but the city remains largely besieged.

Gopin said that “for the first time in recent memory, there was shoving and shouting among those standing in line for the packages. This was unheard of and again shows people’s desperation.”

The packages, he said, were provided with funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Throughout the fighting the synagogue has remained operational, but with the onset of winter, several of the community’s volunteers have fallen ill, complicating the relief efforts, Gopin added.

Still, Lugansk has seen the return of some of its Jews who left for refugee camps earlier this year.

“They had enough of living like refugees, so they decided to take their chances,” Gopin said.

Most of Lugansk’s residential areas have been reconnected to the power grid, but the synagogue is still without electricity and heating except for the heating from a single generator.

For ‘hardcore’ Jews displaced by Ukrainian fighting, Israel beckons

Each time he dispatches a car into Lugansk, Rabbi Shalom Gopin readies himself for hours of anxious anticipation.

The scene of brutal urban warfare between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, this eastern Ukrainian city now has no regular power supply, running water or cell phone reception. Mortar rounds can fall without warning. Much of the population, once 450,000, has fled.

But despite the risks, Gopin, the city’s exiled chief rabbi, has dispatched over a dozen cars to Lugansk, each one intended to quietly ferry Jews to a camp he runs for the internally displaced in Zhytomyr, near Kiev. More than 117,000 people are internally displaced within Ukraine, the United Nations reported earlier this month.

Over the weekend, Gopin welcomed several cars to Zhytomyr carrying a total of 13 passengers. For Gopin, each arrival brings relief, but also sadness over the disintegration of a community he has spent 15 years building.

Initially intended to provide temporary shelter for Jews fleeing the fighting in the east, the facility, which functions mainly as a summer camp, is now home to 250 displaced Ukrainians. Gopin says more than half have no plans to return.

“It’s a sad reality,” Gopin told JTA. “Many people are now realizing the bad situation may remain, so people who never even thought about making aliyah are going ahead with it. The city, my home, is emptying of Jews as it slowly consumes itself out of existence.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for facilitating immigration to Israel, is expecting more than 3,000 arrivals from Ukraine this year — a 33 percent increase over the 1,982 Jews who immigrated in 2013. More than 1,550 individuals have immigrated from Ukraine in the first five months of 2014 alone, more than double the 693 who arrived in the corresponding period last year.

Hundreds of the new immigrants hail from Lugansk, a city of 7,000 Jews. Many others come from Donetsk, a rebel-held city with more than 10,000 Jews that is under constant shelling as government forces prepare to storm it.

“My sense is that 80 to 90 percent of the Jewish population of Donetsk already emptied out of the city, including my own family,” said Sasha Ivashchenko, who fled the city last month and is waiting to make aliyah with his wife. The couple married recently in a ceremony in Donetsk held with the background noise of bombardments by Ukrainian warplanes.

In Zhytomyr, Alexander, a refugee in his 50s who asked to be identified only by his first name, fled Lugansk after three men with rifles entered his small packing factory in the city’s industrial zone and informed him it had been “commandeered for the city’s defense.” One of the men, who Alexander believes were pro-Russian separatists, asked him to leave.

“So now even if the fighting stops, I expect there will be very little for me to come back to,” Alexander said. “I stayed here because this was my place, my business. Now there’s no point.”

When Alexander left the city late last month, public transportation was still operating. But rail traffic ground to a halt on July 26 following the shelling of the train station, effectively trapping much of the population — including hundreds of elderly Jews — in a city that many warn is the site of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Currently there are 47 urgent cases of Jews in need of rescue, according to Eleonora Groisman, the founder of a nonprofit that maintains a database of Jews seeking rescue. Among them is a woman in her 80s trapped inside her Lugansk apartment.

Getting such people out is a complex and risky operation that requires traversing a circuitous route through Russian territory and greasing the palms of forces encountered along the way. Using his contacts with rebel leaders, Gopin has established an escape route in which a driver picks up the evacuees in Lugansk, crosses the border into Russia and then returns to Ukraine farther north in an area not held by separatists.

“You have to understand, the rebel-held area and its surroundings are totally lawless,” Gopin told JTA. “So the car could get stopped and detained or turned back by rebels, suspicious government forces or even thieves preying on the helpless — complications that increase exponentially what is already a serious risk.”

To deal with such possibilities, Gopin provides his drivers with an envelope full of cash for bribes.

“Luckily, we’re talking about bribes at around the $50 or $70, so that’s still affordable,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jerusalem-based organization that has spent millions providing relief to Jews in Ukraine.

To outsiders — and even to some Ukrainians — the decision by thousands of Jews to remain in a war zone seems incomprehensible. But it’s no mystery to Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, who was born in Donetsk.

“The Jews that stayed, they are the hardcore,” Sharansky told JTA. “They’ve watched friends and family leave throughout the 1990s and after, choosing every time to stay. But there comes a time when reality trumps even the hardcore.”