Sunday, August 17, 2008
Georgia's Jews staying put - for now
Last update - 11:17 17/08/2008
TBILISI - On Friday morning, Zorab Karichali came to the office of the American Joint Distribution Committee (the "Joint") to ask for assistance from the aid organization.
Three days earlier, he had fled the city of Gori with eight family members. Some are staying with family members, others in refugee centers.
Karichali has an Israeli passport and in the past lived in Or Yehuda for a year. But unlike the hundreds of Israelis who thronged the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, demanding to be evacuated, he has no intention of leaving the country.
He could not find work in Israel, struggled to learn Hebrew and missed his family and the landscapes of his youth.
Right now Karichali has one goal - to return to Gori as soon as possible to repair his home and the rug shop he owns.
"It's hard to speak of the future right now, because I don't have anything," he says. "But the moment I return home, I'll build everything again from scratch. I don't care who rules, Russia or Georgia.
"I've never been harmed because I'm Jewish - my clients come from all of the surrounding villages, because they trust me," he adds.
Only a few Jews are left in Gori, the remnants of a community that used to number several hundred. Last week, the embassy received 230 applications to immigrate to Israel, compared to 200 Jews who applied in 2007.
But on Friday night at the synagogue in Tbilisi, one hears little talk of leaving, and few applications were filed in the capital city.
One of the community's elders told a Jewish Agency representative that he is immigrating to Israel, after he had demanded for two years to receive an apartment in Tel Aviv on the grounds that he had driven a tank in World War II. Now he is willing to settle for an immigrant absorption center in Ashdod.
Those who fled Tbilisi first were two rabbis - one of them a Chabad member who ran the Jewish school of the Or Avner organization; he boarded the first plane from the city on Tuesday.
The exact size of Georgia's Jewish community is unclear, but is estimated at somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000. It is the remnant of what was once a large and thriving society, which - according to local legend - originated with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem 2,600 years ago.
There is hardly any anti-Semitism in the country, and no security staff are posted around the synagogue.
Most of the Jews here lead traditional lifestyles. While they don't necessarily keep the Sabbath, they do observe the dietary laws.
Mikheil Hananashvili is a ritual slaughterer and cantor in the local synagogue. He studied for a year at the Chabad center in Lod before returning to Georgia. "I was born in Uni, in the Caucasus mountains," he says. "I was never able to forget those mountains."
Today there are 10 Jewish families in Uni. Communities of a similarly small size dot the country.
Hananashvili travels from village to village, slaughtering a cow, sheep or some chickens, and then moves on. This week he stayed in the city, and he is worried that some of his clients in the mountains may have cut ties with him.
Representatives of the Joint have had their hands full in recent days on both sides of the border, Georgian and Russian, evacuating dozens of Jews from the conflict zone.
Fourteen Jews were extricated from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, to Russia. No reports have emerged of attacks directed at Jews, but much of the fighting did center around the city's Jewish quarter, where Georgian troops reportedly left booby traps.
Jews are fighting on both sides of this conflict - on the Georgian side, as part of that country's military. The Jewish military presence here is best personified by Davit Kezerashvili, a former Israeli who speaks fluent Hebrew.
Kezerashvili recently told the Joint about Jewish youths joining Ossetian militias loyal to Moscow.
In Tbilisi, Joint staff are working overtime to ensure the safety of Jews remaining in the capital, in Gori and elsewhere around the country. Their purpose, they say, is to "provide aid to all the area's residents, Jews and non-Jews.
"The Joint of today provides aid to people around the world, without regard to religion," they insist.