One Year Later, Exiled Rabbi Returns to ‘Surreal’ Lugansk, a Ukrainian City Ravaged by War
Rabbi Shalom Gopin was in a car heading back towards Lugansk. Burned-out shells of cars and tanks littered the side of the highway, and as they drove, Gopin’s driver took care to avoid the missile craters pockmarking the road. War had irrevocably changed this once quiet eastern region of Ukraine.
“Don’t walk too far,” the driver told the rabbi when they pulled over for a short rest. “There are landmines out there.”
The advice was well-taken. At least 42 children have been killed by unexploded ordnances in eastern Ukraine since March 2014—and that’s only in government-controlled territory.
Gopin returned last week for his first visit in a year. The city’s rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary led his family—his wife, Chani, and their children—out of Lugansk last June as tensions on the street between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine’s central government came to a head.
The city he left was one teetering on the brink. Arriving back on June 2, Gopin found himself in a battle-worn area he could hardly recognize—now the debris-covered capital of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). The streets he had come to know so well still looked the same, but somehow, it was all very different.
“Lugansk today is a different world,” says Gopin. “It’s surreal.”
‘Still Far Too Dangerous’
Exactly 12 months ago, with Kalashnikov-toting men in masks doing the policing, an open rebellion was taking place in Lugansk. Still, the rabbi and his family decided to stay in the Jewish community they had spent 15 years building.
But then the fighting got closer, and after a Grad missile smashed into a government building in central Lugansk during broad daylight, the Gopins knew it was time to leave. Boarding a train that took them 325 kilometers northwest to the relative safety of Kharkov, they would wait it out, hoping they could soon return.
The family now temporarily lives in Israel, occasionally joining the rabbi on frequent trips to Ukraine’s capital of Kiev to visit with fellow Jewish Luganskers in exile. This trip, Gopin came alone; the pro-Russian-separatist city remains far too dangerous.
He says that at first glance, today’s Lugansk gives off a disarmingly calm impression. Few cars traverse the broken streets; many stores are shuttered. The tell-tale signs of war’s devastation, however, are plainly visible—hollowed-out, damaged homes and buildings mar the cityscape. Some have been boarded up, but much of the wreckage has yet to be removed.
The rabbi was relieved to find his own house still intact. Many locals have not been so lucky, returning to Lugansk only to discover that their homes have been destroyed by missile or shell fire, taken over by squatters or just plain looted. Gopin’s dining-room table—where dozens of local Jews had gathered for Shabbat and holiday meals–still stood, the china unbroken in the kitchen cupboard, his library of Jewish texts lined up on the bookshelves.
“It’s sad,” laments Gopin. “A home awaits its inhabitants.”
Although the elderly have mostly remained in the war-torn regions, some younger people have stayed, like this man wrapping tefillin with Rabbi Shalom Gopin. The city’s rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary returned home last week for the first time since war caused him to leave out a year ago.
That evening Gopin was joined by a dozen Jewish community members, happy to see their rabbi at long last. They talked and sang, toasting each other l’chaim on vodka as they drank in the bittersweet moment.
“I tried to make it more upbeat and focus on good things, but it’s difficult. All is not right in Lugansk today,” he says.
As 11 p.m. approached, it was time for the visitors to go. A military curfew has been in effect in Lugansk for the last year, with the streets becoming silent well before that time. It’s not considered wise to be out after dark. To be stopped by armed LPR men risks being detained for a few nights—or worse, it could lead to being sent off to the battlefield.
“You don’t see many happy faces,” says Gopin. “People live under a certain constant pressure, and you can see the tension.”
Food and Medicine Needed
Morning came fast, and Gopin headed to the half-built synagogue he hoped under different circumstances would have been completed by now. A regular minyan—the gathering of 10 Jewish men required for public prayer—still takes place on weekdays and Shabbat. Now, however, the synagogue primarily functions as a soup kitchen, together with the kitchen of Gopin’s Or Avner-Beth Menachem School, feeding about 170 people every day.
The Ukrainian government in Kiev has imposed a virtual blockade of the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist regions, and the Russian border to the east remains mostly closed as well. The result has been severe food shortages, with formerly well-stocked supermarkets reduced to selling just the bare necessities: sugar, oil, pasta, coffee. Whether paying in Ukrainian hryvnia or Russian rubles—both currencies are accepted, although by now rubles are more prevalent—prices have tripled in the last year.
“People who had steady jobs last year now stand in the market debating whether they can afford to buy a few extra potatoes to feed their families,” says Gopin.
Medicine and medical aid are also scarce. Among the thousands of refugees who fled the fighting last summer were many of Lugansk’s doctors, which mean that local hospitals remain underequipped and understaffed.
“People are dying in Lugansk because of malnourishment or lack of proper medical attention,” reports Gopin. “Had they been in Israel, they would have survived; had they been in Lugansk just a year ago, it would have been fine, too.”
Members of the Jewish community are slightly more fortunate than the general population because of the aid they receive through the synagogue. A day before Gopin got to Lugansk, a shipment of nearly 700 food packages sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews arrived in the city. Gopin’s staff and local Jewish volunteers work to deliver the much-needed relief to community members throughout the city, many of whom are too old or infirm to make it to the synagogue themselves.
Aside from the help provided by the Fellowship, Gopin bears the brunt of the cost of running the soup kitchen, as well as some financial assistance he has been able to provide to some of those in need.
The day Gopin was there, he was able to witness the results of his work for the first time. Following morning prayers, work and organizing, the lunch provided in the synagogue turned into a festive meal of sorts.
“It was a very warm reunion; we were all so happy to see each other again,” says Gopin. “People were also happy to see me because if I was able to return, even if just for a short visit, it already means things are getting a little better.”
The Goal? To Survive
The war in eastern Ukraine has displaced 1 million people and left more than 6,000 people dead. Some 25,000 local Jews have fled the region, finding refuge in safer parts of Ukraine, Russia, or immigrating to Israel or anywhere else they have family. Twenty-six Chabad institutions, including synagogues, schools and community centers, dot the war-torn region, the bulk of which are in the larger city of Donetsk—the site of intense renewed fighting in recent days, which threatens to end the unstable Minsk ceasefire—Lugansk and Mariupol, which remains in government hands.
Chabad provides more than 15,000 local Jews with emergency food plans and medical aid in the region, and remains the sole established Jewish presence in the east.
Despite that steady flow of assistance, according to Gopin, much more must be done. Fierce battles are being fought just 20 kilometers north of Lugansk, in Shchastya, and fighting can return to Lugansk at a moment’s notice.
“We need financial assistance from our Jewish brethren in America and Europe,” says Gopin, “because there are people here who are suffering on a daily basis. People are not living in Lugansk; they are surviving.”
For now, Gopin waits, believing that circumstances can change quickly and for the better if Ukraine and Russia reach some sort of agreement pulling Lugansk and its neighbors out of the current precarious situation.
“I don’t know when that will be,” he says heavily. “But we continue praying for peace and hope we can soon return to our work in Lugansk.”
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