LOD, Israel (Nov. 13)
As the large Aeroflot plane approached the landing runway, the excitement among the group on the tarmac grew. Girls in full denim skirts and long-sleeved tops and boys wearing large black kipot unfurled big banners and flags welcoming the passengers on this unusual flight arriving direct from Moscow.
The 74 pale children who slowly descended the staircase of Aeroflot Flight No. SU 5515 on Nov. 6 were the second group of Jewish children from the Chernobyl area brought to Israel for medical treatment and new lives.
The first group, 196 Jewish children age 5 to 15 brought by Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the Israeli chapter of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch organization, came here in August and settled at Kfar Chabad, a religious township some 15 miles south of Tel Aviv, where a special clinic was set up under the direction of Dr. Ze’ev Weshler, head of the radiology division of Hadassah Hospital. Chabad is continuing its mission to rescue Jews first and foremost the children from the area around Chernobyl in the Ukraine, where the nuclear disaster took place in April 1986.
After spending three months in the Chabad village, the veteran “Children of Chernobyl” look and act like any other Orthodox children. Compared with their behavior only two months ago, the change is revolutionary.
BEGGING TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED
Back then, only a few were willing to talk to strangers visiting the village, and then only in Russian. Last week at the airport, many of these same children approached photographers and reporters with well-known Israeli “chutzpa,” volunteering information about themselves and begging to be photographed.
Marina and Sveta, both 14 years old and from the city of Mozyr, located less than 100 miles from the blast, met in Israel and quickly became best friends. Only three months ago, they suffered daily from bad headaches and nausea. Today, they appear healthy.
But although they feel fine now, medical studies of the children show that a high percentage of them suffer from internal disorders, including thyroid glands enlarged from absorption of radioactive iodine, liver deficiencies, skin diseases and problem of the immune system.
“Three of four times a week, we are having to take some of these kids to the hospital because a little cold or sniffle develops into pneumonia,” said Yossie Raichik, associate director of the Chabad Youth Organization.
Radioactive winds from the leak quickly wafted the contaminated are from the Ukraine to adjacent Byelorussia, a major breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Residents of the area, especially children, have become increasingly ill from constantly ingesting food and water from the area, and breathing the air.
The children who landed this month were accompanied by three Soviet doctors, who examined the children in the Soviet Union at a camp Chabad set up in Moscow.
The doctors are consulting with Dr. Weshler to collaborate on evaluating preliminary medical reports.
Over 600 children have been registered with us their parents,” Raichik said. “Some 100 are already waiting in the camp we set up in Moscow.
The camp was established as a result of psychological studies made in Kfar Chabad, which showed that a high percentage of the children brought here in August had suffered severe trauma due to the sudden separation from their parents and families.
Part of their preparation includes teaching the children some basic facts about Israel and Judaism. The camp instructors, most of whom arrived especially from Israel, also teach the children the kosher dietary laws and dress codes. Thus, the appearance of the 74 youngsters who stepped down from the plane last week was identical to that of any group of Orthodox Jewish children anywhere.
Only two of the girls who arrived wore trousers. The other 42 were all dressed in long denim skirts, just like Orthodox girls everywhere.
All the 30 boys wore large black kipot and most of them displayed tzitzit hanging out of their shirts.
Had it not been for the full cheeks and loud voices of the veterans, it would have been impossible at first to differentiate between the two groups. But apart from their garb, everything else was different.
The veterans were energetically running around the airport while the newcomers slowly made their way to the chartered buses waiting to take them to their new home. Like most Israeli children, the old-timers talked in loud voices and laughed a lot. The new arrivals spoke in whispers and looked tired and serious.
The children now in the Chabad program are waiting for their parents to join them in Israel. Although they seem happy, most do not believe they will stay in the village when their parents arrive, saying they would rather live in a bigger city and in a secular environment.
Since arrival of the first group, strong criticism has been voiced against the Chabad program for isolating the young children in Kfar Chabad and allegedly “brainwashing” them.
SEVEN TONS OF KOSHER FOOD
But since no other project to take Jewish children out of the contaminated area has materialized, even most of the non-religious Israeli public agrees that it is better to have living ultra-Orthodox children than dead or dying secular Jews.
Meanwhile, the plane that brought the children to Israel returned to the Soviet Union with seven tons of kosher food for the Jewish communities of Moscow and Byelorussia Byelorussia, an American spokesperson for Chabad said
A historic agreement was reached recently in Moscow between Kupat Holim and Soviet authorities to jointly run a hospital in the Ukrainian city of Gomel, near Chernobyl, to treat victims of the accident.
The Soviet Union has also agreed to fully disclose to what extent recent Soviet emigres have suffered from the Chernobyl disaster.
Under the agreement, which takes effect Dec.1, an Israeli will be deputy director general of the hospital, a former rest home, which the two parties will jointly administer.
(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)