(JTA) — 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.