Jewish Life Slowly Dying in Abkhazia

After War and Breakup, Handful Remain in Black Sea Enclave

Dwindling: There are fewer than 200 Jews left in the Black Sea enclave of Abhkazia, a small fraction of the community’s former size.
maxim edwards
Dwindling: There are fewer than 200 Jews left in the Black Sea enclave of Abhkazia, a small fraction of the community’s former size.

By Maxim Edwards

Published September 30, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

“Yosef Ashkenazi,” a smile creeps across my new acquaintance’s wizened face as he introduces himself and adds “but not Ashkenadze!” That pronunciation would leave Yosef with a typically Georgian surname. But the –adzes and the –shvilis — another telltale Georgian name ending — have all but left Abkhazia. Seventy-year-old Yosef Ashkenazi is, of course, an Ashkenazi Jew, as are the majority of Jews left in this Caucasus territory that has declared itself an independent republic.

It is a republic recognized by only a handful of states in the world, most notably Russia, which has backed the current government strongly. Neighboring Georgia, meanwhile, continues to claim the land as its own. In 1992, more than 200,000 Georgians fled this territory, including the Georgian Jews, part of a wave of ethnic cleansing and atrocities committed by both sides in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

That was two decades ago. This Sabbath it’s peaceful as Ashkenazi and I walk together into the sun-drenched courtyard of Sukhumi’s synagogue on Inal-Ipa Street to greet a row of octogenarians beneath a fig tree, with whom I chat in Russian. The community’s average age in 2004 stood at 72 and hasn’t gotten younger since then.

The synagogue building is as well worn as its occupants and their wartime memories.

In that context, Ashkenazi’s pun on his surname carries a sinister undercurrent. Abkhazia’s entire Jewish population is now estimated at between 100 and 200, compared to the 1989 figure of 1,308 in the city of Sukhumi alone. The –shvilis and –adzes — that is, the Georgian Jews, whose flight was arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel in 1993 — will not be returning here. War has cleft this Jewish community in two, giving it the dubious distinction of a Jewish population under threat, though not by anti-Semitism. In fact, the small Ashkenazi remnant still here seem to lose little sleep over the fate of the vanished Georgian Jews. For some, like Ashkenazi, it’s good riddance.

Today, on one side of the synagogue courtyard stands the derelict Ashkenazi synagogue. Navigating its hallways in the dark one finds a mikvah and a thoroughly burnt out matzo oven. The much grander Georgian Synagogue faces it. This is now where the Ashkenazi remnant holds its services. Reconstructed in 1958, the Georgian shul’s faded frescoes on the outer wall depict Biblical scenes of an ancient city surrounded by floral decoration.

Unlike many communities across the former Soviet Union, Chabad has yet to reach these lush Black Sea shores, and the community is led by Igor Chernyak, 38, a veteran of a Moscow yeshiva and president of the Abkhazian Jewish Congress. He leads the Shabbat morning service in the Georgian Synagogue as a small group of 15 pensioners occupy perhaps a fifth of the shul’s seating on a collapsing floor. An Israeli flag hangs limply from the bimah, or stage. Rivka Cohen, Israel’s ambassador to Georgia, made a brief visit in 2004, one of the few recent signs that the town’s remaining Jews are not forgotten.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.