Every week, some 30 to 50 Jews from Russia’s Northern Caucasus region board Russian Airlines charter flights from an airport near here to fly to Israel.
In this region, between the Black and Caspian seas, where there were never any significant tensions between the Jewish and predominantly Muslim population, Jews do not appear to be leaving because of fears of persecution.
“What makes more and more Jews in the region consider moving to Israel is economic instability, crime and the ongoing war in Chechnya,” said Chaim Chesler, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation to the former Soviet Union.
Jews of the Northern Caucasus are leaving for Israel in a larger proportion than elsewhere in Russia, he added.
Since Russia sent troops in December 1994 to suppress brutally an independence bid in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, some 400 Chechen Jews have departed for Israel under the auspices of the Jewish Agency.
A Jewish Agency refugee camp located in this city near Chechnya recently closed its gates when the last of its occupants left for Israel.
By the end of February, when the processing of their emigration papers is completed, the last Jewish refugee from the Chechen capital of Grozny will have emigrated to Israel.
According to Chesler, about 40 Jews, most of them elderly, do not want to go, the Jewish Agency will help them to move to Israel,” Chesler said.
Among the passengers on last week’s Russian Airlines flight to Israel were four members of the Davidov family who used to live in Grozny.
The Davidovs left Chechnya with their two sons in January 1995, shortly after the fighting broke out.
The family fled to Nalchik, a city in the neighboring republic of Kabardino- Balkaria.
“When leaving Chechnya, we were afraid of both Russian and Chechen Soldiers,” said Svetlana Davidov, 48, a former deputy director of a factory.
Her husband, Boruch Davidov, a 54-year-old former crane operator, said he did not work for almost two years.
“My life was like a holiday – but not a happy one,” he said.
The Davidovs’ older son, 22-year-old Pavel, was a student of history at the University of Grozny when the war began.
He said both Russian and Chechen authorities had sought to draft him.
Sergei Davidov, 14, the younger son, said he did not want to leave his home in Grozny. He was upset that he was leaving behind his closest friend, a 14-year- old Chechen boy.
Even as he was about to board the flight to Tel Aviv, Sergei said he wished his friend could go with him.
By going to Israel, Boruch and Svetlana Davidov said, they are hoping to secure a better future for their children.
“I am very hopeful that in Israel, our children will have better lives than we had in Chechnya,” said Svetlana Davidov.
“I’m looking forward to seeing a clear sky above my head there in Israel,” her husband said.
The Davidovs were able to go to Nalchik when they fled Grozny because they had relatives there.
Not every Jewish family in Chechnya was fortunate to have relatives living outside the battle-scarred region.
Vladimir Hudaynatov, a 24-year-old graduate of the Grozny Institute of Oil, left Chechnya only three weeks ago.
For more than a year, his family struggled to survive in the besieged Chechen capital.
The apartment the Hydaynatovs lived in was damaged as a result of an air strike by the Russian forces two weeks after the hostilities broke out.
The basement in their apartment building was turned into an air-raid shelter, and they had to seek safety there at least four times a week.
As the war continued, living conditions in Chechnya grew increasingly harsh. With a monthly budget of about $100, the family could hardly make ends meet.
“Even under such conditions my parents believed the war would end soon,” Hudaynatov said.
But for all their attempts to cling to the only life they knew, Vladimir’s parents finally gave up and left with their son.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Jewish population of the Northern Caucasus has decreased by more than half.
According to Svetlana Danilova, a Jewish community leader in Nalchik, the city of Pyatigorsk now has a Jewish population of 5,000; Nalchik, 4,500; Derbent and Makhachkala, both in the nearby republic of Dagestan, 3,500 and 300, respectively.
For the average Jewish family in the region, emigration generally starts with the children – particularly those of draft age – leaving for Israel.
Dmitri Styopin, 22, and his younger brother Konstantin, 19, of Nevinnomyssk, located some 200 miles northwest of Grozny, were among those who left for Israel last week.
Their parents are planning to join them this summer, after a third brother, 17- year-old Mark, finishes high school.
“I don’t know much about Israel,” said Riva Styopin, the boys’ mother. “However, I see it as a safer place for my sons to live.”
A significant portion of Jewish life in the region is organized under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, which has its headquarters in Pyatigorsk and maintains three local offices in Nalchik, Kislovodsk and Vladikavkaz.
Along with providing prospective emigres to Israel with assistance with their documents, the offices offer Hebrew courses to help the olim prepare for life in Israel.
Yarek Wajntraub, head of the Jewish Agency’s office in the Northern Caucasus, believes that Jewish emigration from the area is an irreversible process.
“Only older people are likely to be here soon,” he said.
However, some local Jewish businessmen apparently disagree. A Jewish day school now attended by 200 children was opened recently in Pyatigorsk with the help of a few local donors.