A total of 90 Jews from war-ravaged Georgia have made aliyah in the last two weeks and as many as 100 others will be arriving in the next two weeks, according to an official of the Jewish Agency.
In addition, another 50 Jewish children ages 13 to 16 will be leaving Georgia for Israel at the beginning of September for 10 days of camp.
“We’re taking kids to Israel to change the atmosphere and give them a support camp,” explained Alex Rose, director of Jewish Agency activities in the former Soviet Union. “It is too early to talk about aliyah; their parents are still in Georgia. …. This is the first step in taking them out of this mess. We’re hoping their families will come to join their children.”
During a telephone conference call Tuesday, Katz, who was in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said that most years only about 150 to 200 Jews in Georgia make aliyah. But this year, that number is expected to climb to perhaps 300.
It would be the largest aliyah from Georgia since 23,000 left in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. There are about 10,000 aliyah-eligible Jews still living in Georgia, according to Jewish Agency estimates.
The cost of next summer’s Israeli camp — including the airfare — is between $1,500 and $1,700 per child. If more money is raised, he said, more youngsters could be sent.
The United Jewish Communities has launched an emergency appeal to help the Jews of Georgia. Donations may be made online at www.ujc.org.
The organization’s overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, had been assisting the Jewish community in Georgia.
Shauli Dritter, a representative of the JDC in Georgia, said his organization has been traveling to the town of Gori every three or four days to bring food and medicine to the 27 Jews who wish to remain there, including three Israelis.
“I just returned from Gori,” he said in a conference call Tuesday. “Gori is completely under siege. You can see only Russian troops there. Nobody is moving in the streets. All the gas stations are closed. … The people in Gori are completely dependent on our aid.”
He said the city’s other Jewish residents, about 200, left last week and that most today are in Tbilisi.
“The JDC continues to serve all over Georgia, especially in cities that are under Russian control,” Dritter said. “Different cities are run by themselves. … Our aid is not only for our clients but for all Jewish communities.”
The JDC, he said, has 2,200 clients, including 800 children, in Georgia. Since the Russian invasion of Georgia, the number of Jews displaced by the war is about 300 and Dritter said that most are staying with 33 Jewish families. One family is hosting 22 refugees. The others are staying in dormitories.
“We are supplying all the food and medicine they need,” he said. “Every day we see almost 200 Jews, and we have about 27 jeeps that we use to provide them with special programs on the Sabbath.”
In Tbilisi there are 35 refugee camps for about 40,000 people. Dritter said the JDC travels “from camp to camp to try to find Jewish families who are staying in terrible conditions.”
“Among the camps we found 27 Jews and we brought them to Jewish homes,” he said. “Putting them with Jewish Georgian families is our first priority. We signed today an agreement with the Georgian Red Cross, and I assume that in the future it will help us serve Jews in cities under Russian control.”
When the war started, Dritter said the JDC knew of 17 Jews who were living in a community in South Ossetia, Georgia. He said the JDC evacuated 16 of them but that one 79-year-old woman refused to leave. Recently, he said, they went back and “searched from house to house” looking for her. Last Sunday they found her.
“Her apartment had been destroyed,” he said. “The only room left was the kitchen and we provided her with medicine. She is now in a safe place.”
A spokesman for the Jewish Agency here said that in addition to bringing about 50 youngsters to Israel for a 10-day camping experience, efforts are under way to help other children in Georgia come to Israel. He said 10 recently went on a Birthright Israel trip. And he said three have joined a high school program in Israel that will award them a high school diploma at the end of three years of study.
Vissarion Manasherov, head of the Jewish community of Gori, said that what little Gori’s Jews had, they left behind when they fled the city.
The Georgian government ministries responsible for recording and aiding refugees have buckled under the weight of more than 50,000 people fleeing the conflict zone.
Jewish organizations have set up their own systems of spreadsheets and phone lists to keep track of the scattered mass.
The refugees from Gori can’t return to their city, which is guarded and patrolled by Russian tanks. There are reports of Ossetian military forces threatening the local population and perpetrating ethnically motivated violence.
Delegations from the JDC who tried to reach the embattled city in recent days were turned back by hostile Russian and paramilitary forces. One JDC worker trying to deliver food to Jews in the area turned back after he was confronted by Russian soldiers who fired into the air and at the ground.
Gregory Brodsky, the Jewish Agency’s local representative, said it was much more difficult to convince the elderly and infirm to uproot from the only place they know and run from a conflict zone.
Miriam and Zina Jinjikhashvili, 60 and 68, decided to leave Gori only when a Russian bomb struck part of their apartment building and set it ablaze. The two sisters live with a third sister in a small apartment.
They had been in contact with JDC staff members throughout the weekend who tried to convince them to leave the city, but they had refused. For two days, the sisters argued among themselves.
On Monday, the JDC crew made it to the outskirts of Gori when the sisters called them to say their home was on fire. When JDC staff showed up, the sisters were in a full-on shouting match, replete with tears, as their building burned behind them, said Amir Ben Zvi, a JDC staff member at the scene.
“This was the kind of war that is only in cinemas,” said Zina Jinjikhashvili. “The bombs were huge.”
In the end, the two younger sisters decided to leave. On Thursday, they fretted over the fate of their older sister in a dimly lit apartment in central Tbilisi.
“Every second, I’m thinking about my sister. I’m ready to leave Tbilisi and go home to Gori,” Miriam Jinjikhashvili said.
They have heard that four fire trucks on the scene managed to put out the flames at their building, but the third sister has not been back to check on the condition of their apartment.
The aid organizations have relied on the closeness of the Jewish community in Gori to account for its members in the aftermath of the conflict. Cell phone numbers and word of mouth are like manna to a community that was once so close and is now scattered about.
More than 40 refugees have immigrated to Israel on flights packed with Israeli citizens fleeing Gori. El Al Airlines is one of the few companies flying to Tbilisi. The most recent flight left Friday afternoon for Tel Aviv with a mix of Georgians and Israelis.
At the Jewish Agency office on Friday afternoon, staff members rushed between rooms with stacks of passports and spreadsheets full of names in a mad dash to get ready for the plane.
Jews from Gori crowded in one room and shuffled through stacks of documents that could send them to Israel if everything was in order.
Some already had intended to move to Israel and were taking advantage of the expedited process to make the trip now, while others were fleeing to Israel primarily because of the conflict, Brodsky said.
The yard of the Israeli Embassy in Georgia had been packed for days with would-be immigrants and people seeking assistance, and the embassy only returned to normal hours on Friday.
JTA contributed to this report.