NATO weighs four battalions in Eastern states to deter Russia

The NATO alliance is weighing rotating four battalions of troops through Eastern member states, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Monday, in the latest proposal by allies to guard against aggressive behavior by Russia.

The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which joined NATO in 2004, have requested greater presence of the alliance, fearing a threat from Russia after it annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Carter acknowledged NATO deliberations included the deployment of the four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland. The Wall Street Journal said this would likely total about 4,000 troops split between the United States and its allies.

“That's one of the options that's being discussed,” Carter told reporters traveling with him at the start of a three-day trip to Germany, declining to enter into details about the deliberations by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We're obviously involved in those discussions. I just don’t want to get out in front of where that goes.”

U.S. officials say the goal in Europe is to move increasingly from efforts to reassure allies to broader activity to deter any aggressive moves by Russia.

The United States has already budgeted to sharply boost military training and exercises and last month announced it would deploy continuous rotations of U.S.-based armored brigade combat teams to Europe.

Carter's trip to Germany will include meetings with Army General Curtis Scaparrotti as he takes over as the next NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, succeeding U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove.

Scaparrotti told a Senate hearing last month that a resurgent Russia was displaying “increasingly aggressive behavior that challenges the international norms, often in violation of international law.”

Slovenia, Estonia announce new shechitah restrictions

Slovenia’s National Assembly is set to vote on a proposed ban on all ritual slaughter, which the European Union member country’s government recently submitted for approval.

Estonia, meanwhile, has reportedly imposed new restrictions on its already stringent slaughter policy.

Dr. Igor Vojtic, a member of the executive board of Slovenia's Jewish community, told JTA that the proposed ban came in animal welfare amendments which the government adopted last month.

Vojtic said it was not certain that the amendments would pass the national assembly vote, which is expected to take place within six weeks to eight weeks.

The amendments state that animals may not undergo slaughter unless they are previously stunned. Both Islamic and Jewish law require animals to be conscious when their necks are cut.

The Slovenian Ministry of Agriculture has not replied to a letter from the Brussels-based European Jewish Parliament, which called the amendments a danger to freedom of worship in Slovenia, Vojtic said.

According to the Slovenian news site 24ur, the Association of Islamic communities of Slovenia also has protested against the proposed amendment.

Slovenia, which entered the European Union in 2004, has a Jewish population of 400, according to the European Jewish Congress. According to the CIA World Factbook, 2.5 percent of Slovenia’s population of two million people is Muslim.

In Estonia, the Ministry of Agriculture has reportedly limited all ritual slaughter to licensed slaughterhouses, in a package of amendments to the Estonian Animal Welfare Act, according to the country’s public broadcasting company, ERR.

Even before the amendments, Estonia's policy on ritual slaughter was among the European Union’s strictest. Authorities must be notified 10 work days ahead of each planned slaughter and a government inspector oversees each procedure. The animals are stunned after their throats are cut — a procedure known as post-cut stunning, which not all rabbis permit.

In August, the Conference of European Rabbis said that kosher slaughter could come under further attack this year in Europe.

CER President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt explained that E.U. member countries are required to replace domestic laws on religious slaughter by January 2013 with European Regulation 1099, a set of new regulations meant to ensure animals do not experience “unnecessary suffering” at or near the time of the slaughter.

While the regulations allow exception for religious slaughter, they also allow “a certain level of subsidiarity,” or discretion, to each member state.

In 2011, the Dutch parliament voted in favor of a total ban on the slaughter of animals without stunning, but the Dutch Senate scrapped the ban in May 2012.

Israeli task force in place to secure computer systems

Israel’s government has set up a task force to secure the country’s critical computer systems against possible cyber attacks.

The task force will “encourage and develop the field of cybernetics and turn the State of Israel into a global center of knowledge, in cooperation with academia, industry, the security establishment and other public bodies,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The main responsibility of the task force will be to expand the state’s ability to defend vital infrastructure networks against cybernetic terrorist attacks perpetrated by foreign countries and terrorist elements.

The task force comes in the wake of cyber attacks around the globe, including attacks which the electricity grid in Brazil, banks in Estonia and elections in Myanmar.

The Bank of Israel’s website was shut down in 2008, and last June, after the Turkish flotilla incident, hackers attacked many Israeli Internet sites, including that of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.

Netanyahu ordered the allocation of a special budget to implement a five-year plan that will place Israel at the global forefront in cybernetics. The plan includes investments in academic research and development, the establishment of a super computer-based center at an Israeli university, the establishment of academic centers of excellence, accelerated activity to bring researchers and academics back to Israel, significantly increasing the number of cybernetics students and upgrading university research infrastructures.

Love among many splendored things at Baltics Limmud

Inna Lapidus and Boris Kinber have been etched in the lore of Baltic Jewry.

Activists are pointing to them not only as prime examples of Jewish revival, but of efforts to unify the small ex-Soviet communities of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

It was two years ago that Lapidus, from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, attended her first Limmud conference in Lithuania, to immerse herself in all things Jewish and mingle with fellow Jews. Then a friend introduced her to Kinber, from the Latvian capital of Riga.

A long-distance Limmud love story unfolded, as Kinber and Lapidus, then studying French at The Sorbonne, met each month for dates in Paris, Tallinn or Riga. Their wedding last October drew guests from across the Baltics and beyond.

“When you’re surrounded by people in your community you’ve known for years and don’t find your partner, you go searching,” said Lapidus, who graduated from the lone Jewish high school in Tallinn, where most of Estonia’s approximately 4,000 Jews live.

The newlyweds returned to the fourth-annual Lithuanian Limmud in early February, this time joined by Lapidus’ parents, Natalja and Ilja, who journeyed 10 hours to the Lithuanian capital city with other Estonian Jews on three double-decker buses.

Sentimentality for Limmud aside, Lapidus’ mother said she was there to learn.

“Being from such a small Jewish community, there aren’t so many people you can learn from, and we don’t have much free time,” said Natalja, 57, a pathologist. “Limmud offers us a wide range of possibilities.”

The Lapidus-Kinber union may embody the essence of Limmud: creating space for Jewish learning and schmoozing with peers in a comfortable Jewish environment.

If matchmaking occurs between communities, so much the better.
Limmud also is the latest step in a campaign — funded in part by the contributions of the Los Angeles Jewish community — to create a cohesive Baltic region: from summer camps for children, to weekend gatherings for teens and 20-somethings, to Limmud, which is dominated by the so-called “missing generation” — reared entirely during communism — and younger families, with countless kids romping about.

Even a segment of the ultra-Orthodox attended the event.
Yet the opportunities at Limmud don’t fully explain the remarkable turnout at this four-star resort in the wooded, snow-covered outskirts of Vilnius, which drew more than 1,000 local Jews from a Baltic Jewish population estimated at no more than 25,000.

The crowd was so large, guests were divided into three hotels and shuttled around by van. During dinner they nearly filled an adjoining ballroom.

“Proportionally I think it’s the biggest event in the Jewish world,” said Andres Spokoiny, who handles the region for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which co-sponsors the yearly event and other community-building efforts.

“It shows the thirst and desire to reconnect with Judaism, and that this reconnection takes place in an open, pluralistic environment with all the richness and diversity of Judaism present,” Spokoiny said. “And when they look around that ballroom and see 1,000 people, they feel they’re taking revenge on history.”

Vilnius, a city known to Jews as Vilna, was the historic heart of Yiddishkeit until the Holocaust decimated the community. All four Baltic Limmuds have been held here.

The Limmud “studyfest” manifests the vision first laid out a quarter-century ago by its British founders.

“The principle is that all Jews should learn and all Jews can teach, so we need to provide opportunities for people to learn and for people to teach,” said Clive Lawton, a Limmud co-founder who was on hand in Vilnius. “What you need is three to five people who say, ‘We need to do this’ — and then they need to find some friends.”

Recent Limmuds have been organized in Turkey, Australia, Germany, Holland and New York. In Vilnius, Jews from Bulgaria, Belarus and Argentina were investigating whether the Limmud formula could be adapted locally.

For Vilnius Jews, five decades of aggressively anti-religious, assimilationist Soviet policies after the Holocaust further separated them from their roots.

But the city’s symbolism and potential attracted The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which co-sponsors the Vilnius Limmud with the JDC.

“It just made sense for us to partner with a community that used to be a center of learning, and can be once again,” said Diane Fiedotin, a Los Angeles Federation member at the event. “The community here is alive, not a remnant waiting for the last Jew to die.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Federation has donated about $200,000 annually to the region through a Los Angeles-Baltic Partnership begun in 2002. Beneficiaries include a hospital, schools, summer and winter camps, sports programs, leadership training and a research center.

“Limmud Baltics couldn’t have been possible without the generous support of The L.A. Jewish Federation and its leaders within the framework of the LA-Baltic Partnership,” wrote Spokoiny in an e-mail.

“Certainly, Limmud is the crowning jewel and the culmination of the many projects within that partnership that help develop the basic structure of Jewish life in the region. Together — L.A., JDC and, most important, the local leaders — we are transforming lives and making history. We are providing a vibrant Jewish future for thousands of people, and for entire communities, that we considered lost forever.”

Indeed, the weekend seemed like the social event of the season. Far from the image of ex-Soviet denizens dependent on the Diaspora, subsisting on food packages from the JDC and others, this Limmud attracted a confident, newly rich and burgeoning middle class willing to shell out $70 per family member — double the fee three years ago — plus more for a posh hotel room.

With its combination of dozens of lectures — ranging from Jewish history, culture and traditions to humor, ethics and sex — and evening entertainment — Yiddish-themed song and dance, Israeli folk dance and pop music, and a Russian comedienne — participants say they circle the Limmud weekend many months in advance.

“It’s a family seminar, and we try to do everything together as a family,” said Daniel Tsomik, 25, of Kaunas, Lithuania, who attended with his entourage of six — his wife, Margarita; his parents; his sister and her boyfriend.