JERUSALEM, Oct. 7 (JTA) — Dozens of Israelis have flown to Russia for the grim task of helping identify the remains of relatives who died last week when a Russian airliner exploded in mid-air over the Black Sea.
In addition, Israeli experts arrived Sunday in Sochi, Russia — the site near the Black Sea where the crash investigation is taking place — to help probe the Oct. 4 crash of a Sibir Airlines flight. The 35-member delegation also included a group from the army rabbinate to ensure that victims’ remains are dealt with according to Jewish law.
“Our aim is to help those who need our help,” Lt.-Col. Shimon Dahan, deputy head of the Israeli team, told Reuters. “The delegation consists above all of police who specialize in the identification of bodies.”
Russian officials initially said the incident probably was a terrorist act, but later appeared more open to the U.S. contention that Ukraine mistakenly shot down the plane during a military exercise.
The U.S. theory gained credence after debris was found at the crash site that could not have come from the plane.
Ukraine initially denied that its forces had shot down the plane. But Ukrainian Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh later appeared to retreat from those denials, saying the missile theory “had a right to exist.”
As some relatives were being flown to Russia on Sunday, others who had already arrived were taken to a morgue for the grim task of identifying bodies — some of which had been burned beyond recognition.
An estimated 78 people were on the plane, many of them Russian-born Israeli citizens going to visit family and friends in Siberia.
The plane was en route from Israel to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, which has one of Russia’s largest Jewish communities and is a major center for aliyah to Israel.
Novosibirsk is known as the scientific capital of Siberia. There are more than 50 research institutions in the city, which has 13 universities for a population of 2.5 million people.
In addition to helping identifying the victims, the relatives were flying to Sochi to try to gain some form of closure, said Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sponsored the relatives’ flights.
“We want to help the relatives as much as we can,” said Chesler, who was formerly the head of Jewish Agency operations in the former Soviet Union. “We’re taking the same route” the downed airliner took.
Since the beginning of the year, 620 Jews have made aliyah from Siberia, 78 of them from Novosibirsk.
In 2000, 2,173 Jews immigrated to Israel from Siberia, 447 from Novosibirsk.
One victim, Adi Kameri, 25, was a native Israeli who was going to visit her mother, Aliza, the Jewish Agency’s emissary in Novosibirsk.
Another victim was Natalia Simanin, 22, who was flying to Novosibirsk for her wedding.
There were fathers flying with their children, and mothers with their infants.
Five of the victims were relatives of five 19-year-olds participating in the Jewish Agency’s Sela program, which hosts Russian teen-agers who come to Israel before their parents.
Siberian representatives of two international Jewish organizations were among the dead: Lyudmila Ashkukova served as the Jewish Agency’s coordinator in Novosibirsk, and Valery Chaeifez was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s coordinator in nearby Sosnovoborsk.
With around 15,000 Jews living in Novosibirsk, and another 90,000 in the greater Siberia region, the plane crash will affect many families, Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said.
The agency plans to set up a 24-hour help center in Sochi to offer counseling and other support to victims’ relatives.
“The fact that there’s a direct flight once a week from Novosibirsk shows a strong connection between the Jewish community there and Israel,” Jankelowitz said. “The plane that crashed was the weekly flight.”
(JTA intern Amy Sara Clark contributed to this report.)