Jon Ossoff speaking to volunteers and supporters at a campaign office in Marietta, Ga., on April 18. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jon Ossoff’s secret weapon in tight Georgia race: Jewish moms and daughters

Clad in knee-length, loose fitting shorts, wicking T-shirts, baseball caps and sensible shoes, they cluster and clutch water bottles and exchange war stories awaiting the candidate’s arrival.

Some bring their daughters — almost always their daughters. Sons exist, if a reporter probes, but it seems they are best left at home. But campaigning for the Democrat Jon Ossoff in the tight 6th District special House election is a mother-daughter thing.

“I want a better future for her,” says Calanit Amir, 43, a lawyer, nodding at her 12-year-old daughter, Talia, at a meet and greet in the suburb of Roswell. “And for my son, too. He’s at home.”

A day spent trailing Ossoff around Atlanta’s suburbs makes clear that most of his campaigners are female. These supporters have found unexpected community in a district, which also covers parts of the city, that they believed unwelcoming to liberal concerns about expanding health care coverage and campaigning for women’s rights. Donald Trump’s election has shocked them into action.

At stop after stop on Thursday, the Ossoff army hoots in delight when the candidate steps out of his black SUV — slim, cool in his wrinkle-free black suit and black tie, a sartorial middle finger thrust at the sweltering Georgia heat.

“Thank you for being sane and moderate!” Sara Lichtenberg says, gripping the Democrat’s hand at campaign headquarters in Chamblee before joining other campaigners in canvassing the suburb. “Now win! For reals!”

The special election Tuesday between Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, and Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, already is said to be the most expensive in U.S. history. An estimated $40 million has been spent on relentless ads on radio and TV, but also in get-out-the-vote efforts such as this one, where canvassers plead with voters to meet last Friday’s early voting deadline or at least make sure they get to polling stations by Tuesday.

National Democrats sense the opportunity to further bloody Trump’s troubled presidency by turning a red district blue.

Ossoff, 30, flashes a gleaming grin and sports thick, carefully tousled black hair. He has the wholesome Beatlesque vibe of a mid-1960s rock star, too skinny for his own good, but unsavaged by foreign substances.

He almost irresistibly invites parenting.

“Are you chewing gum, Jon?” Sacha Haworth, his spokeswoman, says at a media opportunity before checking herself, shooting wary glances at surprised reporters. (He was not.)

There is the occasional aside about his preternatural cuteness, but Ossoff’s mostly female backers are here because of something quite unexpected and more substantial: the prospect of change.

Ossoff campaigning in Chamblee, Ga., June 15, 2017. Photo by Ron Kampeas


Many are feminists coming out of a closet they were driven into by the deeply conservative culture once believed to be prevalent in the Atlanta suburbs that comprise Georgia’s 6th.

They speak of years of inaction and conceding the district to conservatives, and then of being galvanized to action before Ossoff announced in December — specifically on Nov. 9, the morning they woke up to a world that attached president-elect to Trump.

Jen Cox started a Facebook page the day after the election, and quickly the numbers grew. By March, there were enough followers to launch PaveItBlue, a group strictly for women (men are invited to attend events) that has as its goal “Flipping the Sixth.” Now it has 3,200 members.

Cox, 46, a realtor, describes moving to the district from Denver several years ago and learning soon enough to keep her thoughts to herself.

“I would throw out a line about Obama getting something passed or about reproductive rights and I would get the same smile and stare — into the distance,” she says at a drinks and munchies party held Thursday evening for PaveItBlue in Roswell, a suburb whose center is pocked with hip bars and eateries.

About 100 women and a few men, bearing blue-and-white Jon Ossoff gear, huddle under a tent braving gusts of warm winds and rain.

“If I was going to have friends for my kids at the pool, I had to keep quiet,” Cox says.

Andrea Capuano, awaiting Ossoff at his headquarters in this suburb with her 11-year-old daughter, Maia, had a similar trajectory.

As a liberal, as well as a Mexican and a Jew, Capuano, 49, a preschool teacher, says her reflex was to keep her head low in a district she had learned was “very red.”

After Trump’s election, she thought, “We’re done being Democrats in the closet in a conservative state.”

Trump nominated Tom Price, the longtime Republican incumbent, to be health secretary, and soon Ossoff emerged as the likeliest Democratic candidate in the special election to replace Price. He won an open primary on April 18, receiving nearly half the vote, leading to this week’s faceoff against Handel, his closest rival with about 20 percent of the vote.

Once it was clear Ossoff was the Democrat in the race, Capuano planted a yard sign on her lawn. A neighbor, Sheila Ford, texted her that she was about to put out an Ossoff sign as well — and Capuano realized she was not alone.

Soon she found a community.

“I made new friends,” she says, getting ready to spend a third day canvassing alongside Ford. “There’s a whole community behind you.”

The 6th District’s reputation as a conservative redoubt may be overstated. It’s true that Handel lawn signs are prevalent, for instance, in Tucker, a suburb lined with ranch houses, American flags and breakfast eateries.

But there has been an influx of immigrants into Chamblee in recent years, and wholly Latino or East Asian strip malls vie for space with stately manses. In this suburb, Ossoff signs edge out Handel’s. Ossoff canvasser T-shirts are often specialized: “Latinos for Ossoff” or “Asians for Ossoff” or “African Americans for Ossoff.” And millennials, who trend liberal, have been attracted in recent years to Roswell and its easygoing community.

Ossoff, who is Jewish, has cultivated Jewish voters: Leah Fuhr, the campaign’s political affairs manager, has organized a number of outings for Jews for Ossoff. On the afternoon of June 9, she says, they filled a busy intersection in the suburb of Dunwoody.

Fuhr says she is surprised at the strength of Jewish support.

“Jews here tend to lean more Republican than nationally,” she says. “But in this election, he’s getting more Jewish support.”

Polls show the contenders running neck and neck.

Still, liberal voters in the 6th had written off the likelihood of electing someone who reflected their politics.

“I wasn’t engaged in local politics before the presidential election in November,” says Rebecca Sandberg, 43, a CPA and a precinct captain for the campaign. “I didn’t think I could get my views across.”

Zoe Weissman, 20, hanging out with Sandburg outside Brilliant Story, a sleek bar in Roswell (Ossoff is inside posing for selfies), is still registered to vote in the 6th District after leaving to study at Vassar two years ago. She wanted to make a difference in a purple state but didn’t imagine it would happen in her district.

“I never thought I’d see the day I could get behind someone like Jon,” she says.

Ellen Sichel, 62, says she now feels guilty about having once believed that the district was a hopeless cause and avoiding campaigns. Her inaction, she says glancing at a newfound friend, Callie Dill, a freshman at the University of Georgia in Athens, was a betrayal of her two daughters and the next generation.

“I’m never going to sleep again,” Sichel, a stress reduction consultant, says at Ossoff headquarters in Chamblee. “If anything good has come out of the Trump presidency, it’s getting people off their asses.”

Arlene Meyer and Cathy Karell work the ranch houses and stately homes along Cameron Forest Parkway in Johns Creek. Meyer has campaigned for statewide Democrats before, but never in her district. For Karell, an independent, this is a first.

“The stakes are super high right now,” Karell says. “I do not like the tone of the country.”

Meyer chimes in, reassuringly: “Now we have thousands of volunteers coming out.

Meyer, who is not Jewish, identifies one address as “strong Ossoff” and examines the token on its doorpost, then asks a reporter, “What’s that? It begins with an ‘m.’”

“Mezuzah,” she repeats upon being told. “I see lots of those around here.”

Arlene Meyer campaigning for Ossoff in Johns Creek, Ga., on June 15. Photo by Ron Kampeas


A dedicated page on Ossoff’s campaign website addresses U.S.-Israel relations.

“Iran is a major state sponsor of terrorism and an avowed enemy of Israel that must not acquire nuclear weapons,” it says.

Handel, 55, has tried to cut at Ossoff for supporting the Iran deal and accepting the liberal Israel lobby J Street’s endorsement, but he handily deflects a question from a JTA reporter about whether he supports the 2015 agreement.

“I’m a supporter of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” he says. “I don’t think that shredding the deal and putting Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapons capability is responsible policy.”

Fuhr tries to jam some Jewish meaning into why Ossoff is picking up Jewish support.

“Helping our neighbors is what being Jewish is all about,” she says.

But talk to his Jewish backers and the first issues they mention are universal: women’s rights and Trump’s pledge to roll back the health care reforms of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“A lot of it has to do with being disenchanted with Trump,” Calanit Amir says.

Capuano says she worries for an older daughter, not present, who has had open heart surgery.

“Ten years from now, if this keeps on going, she won’t have insurance because of a preexisting condition,” Capuano says, “and then who will care for her parents?”

The fraught national rhetoric has infected this campaign: Handel calls Ossoff “dangerously liberal” on a dedicated “our opponent” page on her website and accuses him of “lying his Ossoff” about his national security credentials, which Ossoff says he accumulated as a congressional aide.

Ossoff never loses an opportunity to remind voters that Handel, who is anti-abortion, helped make the decision to split Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the the fundraiser for breast cancer research she served as an executive, from Planned Parenthood. (Komen for the Cure reversed its decision and Handel quit.)

“I think that cutting funding for lifesaving breast cancer screenings is unforgivable,” Ossoff says at a media availability.

Both campaigns have reported receiving death threats.

But Ossoff mostly speaks in soothing, general terms, using phrases like “local accountability,” “fresh leadership” and “balanced budget.”

At his pep talks for canvassers, his overarching message is one of civility.

“Rather than focusing on what drives us apart, let’s continue to make sure that respect and civility and decency are at the core of our message,” he says in Johns Creek, to cheers. “Show that kindness and compassion.”

An hour or so later, Meyer and Karell scoot away from a voter shouting “no soliciting!” through a closed door.

“What Jon said, kindness and compassion!” Meyer says.

Karell repeats, “Kindness and compassion.”

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 18: Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff walks with his girlfriend Alisha Kramer. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jon Ossoff advances to runoff in highly watched Georgia election

WASHINGTON — Jon Ossoff, a Jewish Democrat, led by a wide margin among 18 candidates in a special election in Atlanta’s suburbs seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s young presidency, but failed to win it outright.

Ossoff won 48.1 percent of the vote Tuesday and now faces a June 20 runoff against his nearest rival, Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who had 19.8 percent of the vote.

Trump was heavily invested in the race and in a tweet claimed victory, although Ossoff could still win in the runoff. The 30-year-old documentary filmmaker came out of nowhere to nearly win the seat in the heavily Republican 6th Congressional District.

“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia,” Trump said in a tweet. “Glad to be of help!”

Ossoff, who had predicted an outright victory, nonetheless said the outcome was a win.

“This is already a remarkable victory,” he said in a statement quoted by The New York Times. “We defied the odds, shattered expectations, and now are ready to fight on and win in June.”

Ossoff, also a former congressional staffer, drew endorsements from the national party and from veteran Georgia Congress members, including the civil rights giant Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., for whom Ossoff once interned.

The special election was called after Trump named its congressman, Republican Tom Price, as health secretary. It drew 11 Republicans, five Democrats and three independents.

Price won the district in November with over 60 percent of the vote, but Trump beat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, by barely a percentage point in the district.

Democrats saw an opportunity, and soon the national party, as well as liberal grassroots groups, rallied around Ossoff, pouring upwards of $8 million into his campaign.

Trump in the final days of the campaign appeared to perceive the damage an Ossoff win would do to a presidency scoring historically low approval ratings and with an agenda that has been stymied by the courts and Congress.

The president tweeted multiple attacks on Ossoff in recent days.

“Republicans must get out today and VOTE in Georgia 6,” he said in a tweet posted at dawn Tuesday. “Force runoff and easy win! Dem Ossoff will raise your taxes-very bad on crime & 2nd A(mendment).”

Ossoff was one of three Jews — another Democrat and a Republican — running Tuesday. He sought support from the district’s Jewish community.

Ex-Georgia congresswoman: Israel responsible for Nice and Munich terror attacks

A former Georgia congresswoman claimed that Israel was responsible for the recent terror attacks in France and Germany.

Cynthia McKinney posted on Twitter Saturday night: “Same Israeli photographer captures Nice and Munich tragedies. How likely is that? Remember the Dancing Israelis? …”

The tweet includes a link to a video about the photographer’s coincidence on the Veterans’ Today site.

Dancing Israelis refers to a conspiracy theory that five Israeli men were detained by police in New Jersey on 9/11  after being caught celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center.

The photographer in question, Richard Gutjahr, is not Israeli, but is married to an Israeli, Einat Wilf, a former Knesset member for the Labor party. Wilf served in the prestigious Israeli army’s intelligence unit 8200.

McKinney was the Green Party presidential nominee in 2008.

Gutjahr tweeted photos from the sites of both attacks, though he later said the Munich photos accidentally were deleted from his camera.

In Nice, 84 people were killed July 14 by a rampaging truck driven by a French-Tunisian man. On Friday, a lone gunman, 18, shot up a Munich mall, killing nine.

Top Israeli composer takes a ‘Journey’ to Los Angeles

Israeli urban legend has it that great musicians from the former Soviet Union who made aliyah first had to pick up brooms instead of instruments, working as street sweepers as they sought work in their talents. The story of Josef Bardanashvili’s rise to become one of Israel’s foremost composers lends some credence to that legend. 

In 1996, a year into realizing his Zionist calling at age 47, this famous Georgian composer had no choice but to supplement his music with a job as a manual laborer at a supermarket in Tel Aviv to pay his mortgage.

“I didn’t have the language. I couldn’t teach. [I was] a musician, so, at the same time, I wrote music,” Bardanashvili said in fluent Hebrew during an interview with the Journal near the Tel Aviv office for the Israeli Ministry of Culture, where he was about to serve as part of a jury to select the winner of The Arik Einstein Prize for composers over age 60 — an indication of how far he’s come since then.

He got to stop stocking shelves rather quickly. Musical placements in theater and commissions started rolling in, and, two years into his aliyah, he became the recipient of a prize —– the first of many — from ACUM, the Israeli artists rights agency, for a composition he wrote for Israeli operatic sensation David Daor.

Years later, Bardanashvili reinvented the stature he had enjoyed in his hometown of Batumi, where he served as director of the Batumi College of Music. Today, he teaches at music academies throughout Israel and composes regularly for theater, film, and ensembles in the Jewish state and abroad. On Nov. 11, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Angelenos can witness another of his triumphant crescendos when “A Journey to the End of the Millennium” will be the Israeli centerpiece of the nationwide tour of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), organized by American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the philanthropic organization’s 35th anniversary festivities. Bardanashvili is flying in for the concert, hoping also to catch quality time with a daughter and grandchildren who live in Los Angeles.

The piece — selected personally by IPO maestro Zubin Mehta, a longtime colleague of Bardanashvili — is a symphonic treatment of the composer’s groundbreaking Hebrew opera, which was commissioned 10 years ago by the New Israeli Opera on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Through his signature polystylistic approach, combining elements of classical, romantic, liturgical, folk, vanguard and jazz, Bardanashvili sought to dramatize the conflicting traditions and beliefs of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews as portrayed in the A.B. Yehoshua novel of the same name and on which the opera was based. 

“It’s a big honor — and it’s a big honor for Israeli music,” Bardanashvili said of his inclusion in the program. 

Israeli “classical” music (a term that, Bardanashvili points out, is often used anachronistically) is often overshadowed by the general public’s preoccupation with popular music. Bardanashvili hopes to be instrumental in raising the profile of contemporary Israeli classical music, as well as the next generation of Israeli composers.

“We have many successes, but little is written about it,” he said, citing one of his students, Avner Dorman, as an example of an Israeli composer who enjoys success in the United States. “We’re more nestled in our own world, but we are the story of the birth of music.”

The melting pot that is Israel, he believes, cooks up a diverse, rich musical culture worthy of international attention. “The synthesis creates something crazy, big,” he said.

This synthesis has been reflected in Bardanashvili’s own life and music. He came to Israel in the footsteps of his family, a proud, traditional Jew from a land he loved and still loves for its beauty and the opportunities it gave him as a composer. He continues to receive commissions from the country of his birth, Georgia. 

“Even if I weren’t successful here, I’d be very happy,” he said. “As the Jewish saying goes: ‘Change your place, change your fortune.’ I wanted to be in a different place, part of my nation. It’s important to me.” 

A self-proclaimed “man of the sea,” Bardanashvili currently lives in Bat Yam, a coastal city near Tel Aviv, which he chose because it reminds him, in name and topography, of his hometown of Batumi, overlooking the Black Sea. He counts another significant achievement, a creation that mirrors his mixed ethnic music. 

“My children are now Israeli — with the Georgian beauty.”

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 11. For more information, visit

For aliyah promoters, Ukraine’s troubles provide a boost

Until April of last year, Julia Podinovskaya felt like she had a pretty good handle on where her life was going.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Podinovskaya, who is in her 20s, was volunteering with the local Jewish community while preparing to finish her bachelor’s degree in education at a local university.

Moving to Israel, or anywhere else, was not on her mind.

“Everything was planned,” she said in an interview at a Jewish summer camp near Tbilisi, the capital city of this republic. “On my father’s birthday, I already knew what I would give him the following year.”

But Podinovskaya’s life was turned upside down in the spring of 2014 when her city — and its Jewish community — were ripped apart in deadly fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. When the university shut down, Podinovskaya began helping the Jews of Donetsk, restarting the besieged city’s cultural activities for Jewish children after their shuttering because of the war.

In February she left for Kharkiv, a city located 185 miles northwest of her hometown, joining hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians.

Now, after spending the summer at the Zionist camp in Georgia, Podinovskaya is considering leaving Ukraine for Israel.

While not “instinctively attracted” to the idea of living in the Jewish state, Podinovskaya said, “I need to weigh my options because of the circumstances of my life.”

The summer camp she attended, Tchelet, is run by the Kiev-based Zionist Seminary, or Midrasha Zionit. It’s part of an effort by the Jewish Agency, which works to facilitate immigration to Israel and co-funds the camp, to reach out to Ukrainian and other Russian speakers who once had been resistant to the idea of moving to Israel.

“Generally speaking, those who wanted to leave left in the ’90s,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to the approximately 1 million Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

But war has driven thousands more to Israel, or at least to consider the possibility. From January to August, 4,204 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel — a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period the previous year. That’s on top of a nearly 200 percent increase in immigration to Israel, or aliyah, between 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, 5,920 Ukrainians moved to Israel. Only France, whose Jewish population is about twice that of Ukraine’s, sent more immigrants to Israel in 2014.

War and instability are also contributing to aliyah from neighboring Russia, where the economy is suffering from international sanctions connected to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists. The conflict also has unleashed a nationalistic resurgence that is making many Russian Jews uncomfortable.

Aliyah from Russia in the first seven months of 2015 was 3,756 people — a 52 percent increase over the same period last year. Sharansky told JTA that he expects 6,000 Russian Jews and 7,000 Ukrainians to make aliyah this year. The European Jewish Congress estimates that there are 260,000 Jews in Russia and 380,000 in Ukraine.

“In Russia there’s a serious increase from Moscow and St. Petersburg that we haven’t seen in the past, and that’s mainly businessmen, intelligentsia, people who are afraid to find themselves closed off from the free world,” Sharansky said.

Amid the increased interest in aliyah from Ukraine and Russia, the Tchelet camp expanded this summer to include families in addition to its usual groups of teenagers and young adults. This was also the first summer that Tchelet was taking place in Georgia; from 2008 to 2014, the camp was situated in Ukraine, near Kiev, where the Zionist Seminary was established in 2006.

The move to Georgia was part of a push by the Jewish Agency to relocate nearly 1,000 youths from Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Recognizing an increase in demand for aliyah among populations of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency sent in dozens of extra workers to facilitate the influx.

Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry, meanwhile, responded to the Ukraine war by simplifying aliyah procedures for Jews in eastern Ukraine. And the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — a Christian-funded group that has facilitated aliyah as well as community life in the former Soviet Union and beyond — stepped in with extra funding of millions of dollars for relief operations and special aliyah flights from Ukraine.

At Tchelet, 140 participants — most of them young, single adults, but also some families — stayed for one to two weeks this month at a rustic mountain resort. The visitors — the majority were from Ukraine and Russia, but also some from Belarus, Israel and even France — attended mandatory discussion and workshop sessions led by a mostly modern Orthodox staff about the Jews’ biblical connections to the Land of Israel and their longing for it in the Diaspora.

But at the end of each day, groups of young men and women, many wielding guitars and sometimes a bottle of vodka or two, went down to the lake or stayed indoors as they sang a repertoire of Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian pop songs until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the counselors’ declared commitment to promoting aliyah, some participants came in the hope of strengthening Jewish life in Ukraine, not Israel.

“This year I came here with the goal of finding a bride,” said Itshak Reynish, a 28-year-old Orthodox Jew from Kiev who has attended Tchelet for seven consecutive years.

Reynish said he does not intend to leave.

“Who said all Jews should leave? I think we should stay and make a strong community,” he said. “At least I intend to.”

Tchelet instructor Efraim Bogolyubov, who grew up in a secular home in Kiev but became religiously observant and made aliyah in 2012, said that despite the aliyah push, “we also give them the feeling it’s legitimate to stay and be Jewish back home.”

(The Zionist Seminary sponsored Cnaan Liphshiz’s trip to Georgia. It had no role in the writing or editing of this story.)

The Iranian threat hits home

Amid analysis of the Iranian nuclear threat and how America should respond on a national level, recent attacks on Israeli embassies in India and Georgia has Jewish institutions asking a question that is much closer to home: Does Iran pose a local terror threat?

“Homeland security really starts as security in the neighborhood,” Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Jewish Federations of North America-affiliated Secure Community Network (SCN), told JointMedia News Service.

The national Jewish security perspective

SCN, which partners with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and 56 major Jewish organizations, is asking Jewish organizations “to remain vigilant, to ensure that they have tested their [emergency management and response] plans,” and if they do not have plans, to develop them, Goldenberg said.

“It’s a matter of record that Jewish institutions in the Diaspora have been attacked by both proxies of Iran as well as other extremist and terrorist organizations,” he said.

While there is “no specific or imminent threat against the American-Jewish community” at this juncture, according to Goldenberg, he said does not mean “some lone wolf, some cell out there, is still plotting and planning, and law enforcement doesn’t know about it.”

Though he said an attack by Iran isn’t necessarily “likely,” the October 2011 assassination attempt on the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington suggests Iran is “not beyond setting its sights on targets within the U.S. homeland,” said Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington, DC-based American Foreign Policy Council.

Berman said “you’ve seen Iran strike Jewish targets in the Western hemisphere before,” citing bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in both 1992 and 1994. More recently, he said there has been “a significant shift in Iranian strategy in terms of its willingness to target the U.S. homeland.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jewish targets are the most likely targets, but they certainly should be part of the calculation as you think about an increasingly emboldened Iran that’s willing to strike out against targets in the U.S. homeland,” Berman told JointMedia News Service. “They’re certainly in the mix.”

The local Jewish perspective

According to a Washington Post survey, California ranks first among the 50 states in “domestically focused counter-terrorism and homeland security organizations.” Sixty-four urban metropolitan areas are designated as “high-threat, high-density,” while the state has identified 623 sites as “potential targets.” One, the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, was hit in 2002 in an attack that killed two people and wounded four.

California instituted a massive counterterrorist program well before 9/11. Measures first taken to protect the 1984 Summer Olympic Games led to the development of the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in 1986. A Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEWG) was established in 1996. By 9/11, federal and state counter-terrorism authorities already had a loose-knit network of TEWGs and JTTFs. The California Emergency Management Agency (CAL-EMA), established in 2009, coordinates homeland security and emergency management functions.

Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, is a facility that also includes a day school, afternoon Hebrew school, and, according to Executive Director Howard Lesner, “has activities going on seven days a week.” The temple implemented enhanced security measures immediately after 9/11.

“The greatest change is getting in and out of the building,” said Lesner. Sinai employs a fulltime head of security—a retired law enforcement professional who remains fully armed. He works closely with an outside security agency that provides trained guards, some armed, some not.

“We are in constant contact with the local police department, the FBI and Homeland Security,” Lesner said. Entry and exit are limited to a single door, controlled by a fulltime, trained guard stationed outside the building.  Everyone entering the building is checked: employees must present identification, and their appearances are always prescheduled.

“If someone just shows up,” said Lesner, “that person is not allowed in.”

Temple Sinai members receive numbered identification tags for their cars, checked at a manned kiosk prior to pulling in to the parking area. To enter the synagogue building, a picture ID must be presented. The synagogue security system is tied in to both the local police and federal law enforcement authorities, enabling security personnel to check the records of every person seeking to enter. “The system is very successful,” Lesner noted, “and has prevented access to several persons identified as inappropriate.”

With funds provided by a grant from Homeland Security, a 24-hour, fully manned visual surveillance system further enhances security at Sinai Temple. Working in close cooperation with local law enforcement, the synagogue established a “red zone” prohibiting parking on all four sides of the full-block structure. The Los Angeles Police Department responds quickly to any perceived threat.  “When an unattended package was discovered, the bomb squad responded immediately,” recalled Lesner (the package ending up being benign).

“If al-Qaeda should decide to target [us], there is little that can be done. But 99 percent of the crackpots—when they see security—move on to the next target. Presence makes the difference,” said Lesner. “We are very proactive. A community can’t spend enough money to protect its greatest assets—its children.”

What steps can Jewish institutions take?

The SCN’s Goldenberg said Jewish institutions should be training their staff and volunteers in security awareness, while being be very cognizant of suspicious activities and reporting them to local police. To that end, the SCN website ( has an “Enter” section on its homepage providing free 24/7 online security training.

SCN’s online training is the “only one of its kind in the country,” Goldenberg said, and includes information on how to respond to an active shooter, security awareness, how to handle a suspicious package, and how to answer a bomb call.

The Jewish community “should not be panicked,” he said, but instead needs to “remain open for business.”

“We’re not stores,” Goldenberg said. “We’re places where people come to pray, people come to socialize, people come for social services from our community.”

“As long as the situation in the Mideast remains the way it does at this point,” he added, “we are asking our communities to remain very vigilant in how they are conducting business.”

Gingrich wins Republican primary in Georgia, TV networks project

Newt Gingrich won the Republican presidential primary in his home state of Georgia, TV networks projected on Tuesday, giving the former congressman his second victory of the primary season.

Gingrich, who spent much of the last week campaigning on his home turf, last won a victory in January in South Carolina. Georgia has the biggest number of delegates of the states holding nominating contests on Super Tuesday and Gingrich had said he had to win the state to keep his campaign viable.

Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Vicki Allen

Super Tuesday election results by state

Georgia –


Gingrich wins Republican primary in Georgia, TV networks project

Newt Gingrich won the Republican presidential primary in his home state of Georgia, TV networks projected on Tuesday, giving the former congressman his second victory of the primary season.

Gingrich, who spent much of the last week campaigning on his home turf, last won a victory in January in South Carolina. Georgia has the biggest number of delegates of the states holding nominating contests on Super Tuesday and Gingrich had said he had to win the state to keep his campaign viable.

Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Vicki Allen

Idaho – Romney

Romney projected winner in Idaho

Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential caucuses in Idaho on Tuesday, Fox News projected.

With 12 percent reporting, former Massachusetts governor Romney had 78 percent support, to 11 percent for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, his closest competitor.

Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Massachusetts – Romney

Romney projected winner in Massachusetts, CNN

Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday in Massachusetts, the state where he was governor, CNN and Fox projected, easily defeating Rick Santorum, his closest rival.

Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu

North Dakota – Santorum

Santorum projected winner of North Dakota caucuses

Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, won the Republican presidential caucuses in North Dakota on Tuesday, CNN projected.

Congressman Ron Paul of Texas was in second place and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was in third with 78 percent of the votes counted, CNN said.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was in fourth place.

Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen

Ohio – Mitt Romney

TV Networks: Romney beats Santorum to win Ohio Republican primary

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney scored a narrow victory over Rick Santorum to win the Republican presidential primary in Ohio, television networks projected.

Romney, who had trailed Santorum in the state for most of the night, was 12,000 votes ahead with 96 percent of the vote counted. He was declared winner in five races so far on Super Tuesday. Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Vicki Allen

Oklahoma – Santorum

Rick Santorum wins Oklahoma Republican Presidential primary, Fox News projects

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum won the Republican presidential primary in Oklahoma on Tuesday, Fox News projected shortly after polls closed.

It was the first victory of the night for Santorum, a staunch conservative who has been trying to establish himself as the conservative alternative to the more moderate front-runner Mitt Romney. Ten states are voting in nominating contests on Super Tuesday.

Reporting by Deborah Charles and Emily Stephenson; Editing by Vicki Allen

Tennessee – Santorum

TV Projections: Santorum wins in Tennessee primary

Rick Santorum won the Republican presidential primary in Tennessee on Tuesday, U.S. television’s NBC and CNN networks projected, defeating rival Mitt Romney.

Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen

Vermont – Romney

Romney wins Republican primary in Vermont

Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary in Vermont, beating out Rick Santorum and Ron Paul – his closest rivals in the state, Fox news projected on Tuesday

Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, was declared the winner about 30 minutes after the polls closed. It was the second win of th night for Romney, who is hoping for a good showing in many of the 10 states voting in primary elections and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Vicki Allen

Virginia – Romney

Romney projected winner in Virginia, TV networks

Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary in Virginia on Tuesday, MSNBC and Fox projected, easily defeating Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the only other contender on the ballot.

Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Hezbollah denies role in attacks in India, Georgia

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah denied Israeli accusations on Thursday that his group was behind bombers who attacked Israeli missions in India and Georgia this week.

“I assure you that Hezbollah has nothing to do with this,” he told supporters. Israel accused Iran and Hezbollah of being behind twin bomb attacks on Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia on Monday, wounding four people. Tehran also denied the Israeli accusations.

Nasrallah was speaking at an event marking the fourth anniversary of the assassination of its military commander Imad Moughniyah. The Shi’ite group accused Israel of killing Moughniyah in a car bomb in Syria and has vowed revenge.

Israel has denied involvement, and said that it has since foiled several Hezbollah attempts to kidnap Israelis abroad.

Nasrallah reiterated the group’s vow to respond to Moughniyah’s killing: “As long as there is blood in the veins of any (member) of Hezbollah (then) the day when we will avenge the killing of Imad Moughniyah will come.”

Hezbollah fought against Israel in a 34-day war in 2006 after the group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Some 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, were killed and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny; editing by Andrew Roche

Israel blames Iran after attacks on Embassy staff

Israel accused arch-enemies Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of being behind twin bomb attacks that targeted Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia on Monday, wounding four people.

Tehran denied involvement in the attacks, which amplified tensions between two countries already at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear program, and accused Israel of carrying out the attacks itself. Hezbollah made no comment.

In the Indian capital New Delhi, a bomb wrecked a car taking an Israeli embassy official to pick up her children from school, police said. The woman needed surgery to remove shrapnel but her life was not in danger.

Her driver and two passers-by suffered lesser injuries.

Israeli officials said an attempt to bomb an embassy car in the Georgian capital Tbilisi failed, and the device was defused.

Israel had put its foreign missions on high alert ahead of the fourth anniversary this past Sunday of the assassination in Syria of the military mastermind of Hezbollah, Imad Moughniyeh – an attack widely assumed to be the work of Israeli agents.

Israel is believed to be locked in a wider covert war with Iran, whose nuclear program has been beset by apparent sabotage, including the unclaimed killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists, most recently in January.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed both Iran and Hezbollah, accusing them of responsibility for a string of recent attempted attacks on Israeli interests in countries as far apart as Thailand and Azerbaijan.

“Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are behind each of these attacks,” said Netanyahu, who dismisses Iran denials that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. “We will continue to take strong and systematic, yet patient, action against the international terrorism that originates in Iran.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast rejected Netanyahu’s accusation, saying it was Israel that had carried out the attacks as part of its psychological warfare against Iran.

“It seems that these suspicious incidents are designed by the Zionist regime and carried out with the aim of harming Iran’s reputation,” the official news agency IRNA quoted Mehmanparast as saying.

Israeli officials have long made veiled threats to retaliate against Lebanon for any Hezbollah attack on their interests abroad, arguing that as the Islamist group sits in government in Beirut, its actions reflect national policy.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington that the United States had no information yet on who was responsible, adding: “These incidents underscore our ongoing concerns of the targeting of Israeli interests overseas.”


The New Delhi blast took place some 500 meters (yards) from the official residence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

B.K. Gupta, the New Delhi police commissioner, said a witness had seen a motorcyclist stick a device to the back of the car, which had diplomatic registration plates.

“The eyewitness … says it (was) some kind of magnetic device. As soon as the motorcycle moved away a good distance from the car, the car blew up and it caught fire,” said Gupta.

The Iranian scientist killed in Tehran last month died in a similar such attack by a motorcyclist who attached a device to his car. No one has claimed responsibility for that, although Iran was quick to accuse agents of Israel and its U.S. ally.

Israel named the injured woman as Talya Yehoshua Koren, who worked at the embassy and was married to the defense attache.

“She was able to drag herself from the car and is now at the American hospital, where two Israeli doctors are treating her,” an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Thailand said last month its police had arrested a Lebanese man linked to Hezbollah, and that he later led them to a warehouse stocked with bomb-making materials. Also last month, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested two people suspected of plotting to attack Israel’s ambassador and a local rabbi.

In a speech on January 24, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, accused Hezbollah of trying to carry out proxy attacks while avoiding direct confrontation.

“During this period of time, when our enemies in the north avoid carrying out attacks, fearing a harsh response, we are witnesses to the ongoing attempts by Hezbollah and other hostile entities to execute vicious terror attacks at locations far away from the state of Israel,” Gantz said.

“I suggest that no one test our resolve.”

Israel and Hezbollah fought an inconclusive and costly war across the Lebanese border in 2006.

Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee, Annie Banerji and Arup Roy Choudhury in New Delhi, Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Crispian Balmer, Mark Heinrich, Alastair Macdonald and Kevin Liffey

Gingrich to RJC: U.S. needs ‘dramatically rethought strategy for the Middle East’

Appearing with five fellow candidates at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum, Newt Gingrich called for “a dramatically rethought strategy for the Middle East.”

The GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage separately Wednesday, and each spoke for approximately half an hour at the 2012 RJC Republican Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington. Tackling a mix of foreign and domestic issues, speakers took turns blasting President Obama’s Middle East policies.

“This one-sided continuing pressure that says it’s always Israel’s fault, no matter how bad the other side is, has to stop,” Gingrich said.

The former House of Representatives speaker, who is leading in the Republican polls, said the U.S. needed to prepare for a “long struggle with radical Islamists.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also took aim at Obama’s handling of relations with Israel.

“He’s publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders. He’s insulted its prime minister. And he’s been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran,” Romney said.

Speaking after Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry vowed that as president he would increase strategic defense aid to Israel. The RJC has criticized Perry via Twitter for saying that he would include Israel in his proposal to reassess all foreign aid allocations.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) spoke of her experience as a volunteer on a kibbutz after graduating from high school, saying that her “love for Israel and for the Jewish people deepened” as a result. She also said that she had connected with a donor who would pay for the relocation of the U.S. ambassador’s residence from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both well behind in the polls, led off the forum in the morning.

Herman Cain had been scheduled to address the gathering before he suspended his presidential campaign.

One top Republican candidate, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was not invited to the forum. The RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, had cited what he described as Paul’s “misguided and extreme views” as the reason for Paul’s exclusion.

Paul has called for an end to all U.S. foreign aid, including to Israel, and has said that the U.S. should try to extend friendship to Iran.

In his address to the RJC, Gingrich made news by vowing to offer the job of secretary of state to John Bolton, a hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

Debate rages over attack on Jewish soldier at Ft. Benning

NEW YORK (JTA)—All sides agree that a beating last month left a Jewish U.S. Army trainee, Pvt. Michael Handman, with facial wounds, severe oral injuries and a concussion. What’s in dispute is whether the assault—at the base in Fort Benning, Ga.—was carried out by multiple attackers, and if it was the product of an anti-Semitic campaign waged by Handman’s superiors.

The military has charged just one person, a fellow trainee, and insists that he was not motivated by anti-Semitism. Handman’s supporters, on the other hand, believe multiple attackers were involved and feel the incident was connected to anti-Jewish slurs dished out to Handman by two company drill sergeants.

Military officials declined to make Handman available for comment, and separate efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. His mother, Randi Handman, told JTA that her son only remembers being called into the laundry room to retrieve clothing, was struck and spun on his back while sorting through a pile, then covering his head to shield it from blows before drifting into the blackness of a concussion. He says several recruits were in the room before the beating commenced, his mother added.

Just days before the Sept. 24 assault, the two drill sergeants were issued letters of reprimand, in which they were accused by the military of addressing Handman with anti-Jewish slurs, including “Juden.” In the base’s mess hall, one of the drill sergeants also demanded that he remove his yarmulke, which he had begun to wear in the few weeks following his induction.

Though army regulation allows for individuals to wear a yarmulke, praying while on guard duty—which Handman was rebuked for—is against regulation, because soldiers must limit their focus to guarding weapons. According to his mother, Handman says that he was not praying, but merely reading Jewish canon—three feet from where another guard had been reading the New Testament undisturbed.

She also said that prior to the assault, she received a foreboding letter from her son, warning her that he would be attacked.

“I have just never been so discriminated against/humiliated about my religion,” he wrote, adding: “I just feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. Like my battle buddy heard some of the guys in my platoon talking about how they wanted to beat the shit out of me tonight when I’m sleeping. It just sucks. And the only justification they have is [because] I’m Jewish. Maybe your dad was right…The Army is not the place for a Jew.”

The case has attracted the attention of Mikey Weinstein, leader of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an outfit that fights alleged religious bias in the U.S. military. Weinstein, whose foundation has launched its own investigation of the beating, says that the drill sergeants referred to Handman as “fucking Jew” and kike. According to Weinstein, platoon members attempted to dispirit Handman by ejaculating in his pillow.

Handman’s father, Jonathan, contacted U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in the hopes that he would take an interest in the investigation, and urge the military to switch his son to a less hostile company. In response to the senator’s inquiries, Fort Benning’s Deputy Chief of Staff Samuel Selby Rollinson wrote that he does not condone the actions of the non-commissioned officers in slurring Handman, and denying him the right to wear a yarmulke or attend Jewish prayer services. But, Rollinson added, their actions were “not meant to be malicious, and were done out of ignorance for regulations and cultural awareness.”

Military police have concluded that Handman was attacked by a lone assailant, a fellow trainee that they refuse to identify, citing army regulations. The suspect has been charged by military police with assault, and is subject to yet-to-be determined penalties, including 45 days of restricted movement, extra duty, reduction in grade and forfeiture of pay. Military officials denied JTA requests to speak with the private who was charged in the assault.

Handman has been moved out of his original platoon to a rehabilitation platoon to recuperate from his injuries, and is now in a different battalion.

When asked through what method of investigation it was determined that the non-commissioned officers “inadvertently” violated the private’s religious rights, a spokeswoman for Rollinson, Monica Manganaro, said that they acted “out of character,” are experienced drill sergeants and had a superb record of performance up until this incident.

Weinstein said that the military frequently attempts to portray such incidents as one-time occurrences. He criticized the army’s choice of Lt. Dan Kim to lead the investigation of the motives behind the assault, saying that he would ultimately be the one accountable for prevalent misconduct.

According to army officials, Kim spent days gathering 100 sworn testimonies from every member of Handman’s company, all of whom denied that religious prejudice was pervasive, or that it provoked the beating.

Fort Benning’s spokeswoman was unaware of the “battle buddy” who Handman said had warned him of a pending assault fueled by anti-Semitism. According to the spokeswoman, Kim and military police officials say they have uncovered another motive during the investigation, but military privacy regulations prohibit her from sharing that information.

Weinstein argued that the sworn testimony of the privates is unreliable, since it was solicited by a lieutenant who ranks above them.

Claims that a conflict of interest exists were dismissed by an army spokeswoman, who pointed out that Kim answers to his superior, the battalion commander, and is obligated to render a truthful investigation.

Weinstein criticized the penalty, saying it was an outrage that the assailant was not even given the lowest form of a court martial. Handman’s father called the punishment “cute” and merely a slap on the wrist.

Will new ‘Cold War’ play out in Middle East?

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes to Moscow next month, his first order of business will be to make sure the Russians don’t sell sophisticated new weaponry to Syria that could alter the military status quo in the Middle East.

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russia to make a pitch for the arms, new anti-aircraft missiles and ground-to-ground rockets that would put all of the Jewish state within range of Damascus.

Though Russia rejected the request, the Russians apparently are prepared to sell Syria other anti-aircraft missiles, state-of-the-art anti-tank missiles and fighter planes.

In January 2005, Vladimir Putin — then Russia’s president and now its prime minister — promised Israel not to sell arms that might upset the strategic balance in the Middle East. So far, Putin has kept that promise.

But with talk of a new Cold War in the offing following Russia’s recent military successes in Georgia, Israel is worried Russia might reassess this policy and use the sale of new weaponry to Syria — or the threat of it — to strengthen Russia’s hand vis-à-vis Israel’s primary ally, the United States.

Some experts are concerned that the growing clash between Russian and U.S. interests will prompt Moscow to feel freer to sell its arms to countries outside the U.S. orbit that also happen to be hostile to Israel. The worst-case scenario, experts say, is that Russia would revert to its Soviet role as Middle East spoiler, fanning the flames of conflict and undermining peace efforts.

Most say, however, that Russia will always stop short of direct confrontation — and the Georgia episode hasn’t changed this approach.

“There is no way the Russians are going back to the Cold War or anything like it,” one Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity.

But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now at Tel Aviv University, argues that Russia has emerged much stronger from its Georgia campaign and that this will have repercussions for the Middle East.

In Rabinovich’s view, U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran is now far less likely, and Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria are much more likely.

Israeli analysts say the Russian military industry long has been pushing for unrestricted weapons sales, but Putin has been wary of selling weapons that could spark regional flare-ups and involve Russia in head-to-head conflict with the West.

In the past, Russia has refrained from selling strategic weapons like the Iskander-E ground-to-ground rocket or the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Syria.

The Iskandar is far more accurate than the Scud rockets currently in the Syrian arsenal and could pinpoint any target in Israel from Haifa to Eilat. The S-300 has a range of 125 miles and can handle 36 targets at once. Deployed in Damascus, it could threaten aircraft deep inside Israeli airspace.

With Moscow emboldened after its dramatic success in Georgia, some Israeli analysts worry these weapons eventually could find their way to Damascus.

In the telephone conversation last week during which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Olmert to Moscow, the Israeli prime minister bluntly conveyed the extent of Israel’s opposition to any such sale to the Syrians. It would be a pity for Assad to spend billions on arms Israel would be forced to destroy, Olmert reportedly warned Medvedev.

The Russian-Syrian connection goes back to the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into a proxy war with the United States.

In those days, the Soviets were perceived as a real threat to Israel’s existence and as an obstacle to peace. Syria became Moscow’s chief client state after Egypt expelled the Soviets in 1972 and made peace with Israel in 1979. This changed only in the late 1980s, when Syria no longer could afford to buy conventional weapons from Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia pursued a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Although it continued to sell arms to Syria, it developed economic ties with Israel worth more than $2 billion a year — a volume of non-military trade that exceeds that between Russia and the entire Arab world.

Israeli officials do not expect this to change much in the wake of the Georgia campaign.

The key question is what the Russians do in Iran. The record so far is not encouraging.

Russia has done little to help stop the Iranian nuclear weapons drive. On the contrary, Russia has signed lucrative contracts to develop Iranian nuclear plants and oil fields; blocked U.N. Security Council proposals for stricter sanctions; built Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor; reportedly started supplying Iran with $4 billion worth of air defenses, including S-300 missile systems, to thwart a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; and reportedly signed contracts worth about $20 billion to build 20 civilian nuclear power stations by 2020.

Israeli officials believe that Russia ultimately does not want to see Iran with a nuclear bomb — that would threaten Russian interests, too. Rather, Israel expects Russia to try to reap as much economic benefit as possible from its Iranian connections while stopping short of allowing Iran to acquire the bomb.

The question going forward will be whether the tension between Moscow and Washington heats up or cools down.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping any potential Moscow problem can be defused with incentives from the West. During a visit to Washington in July, Barak proposed that the United States give up its planned missile defenses in Eastern Europe in return for a clear-cut Russian commitment on Iran.

The Americans, however, were not convinced.

Emergency aid mission to Georgia: Find every Jew

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA)—Some ran Friday when the bombs fell on Tskhinvali, some on Saturday when they fell on Gori and some on Sunday when the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia proper.

The Jews of Georgia scattered, disappeared and resurfaced in refugee camps, relatives’ homes or at the doors of the synagogue.

As Russia occupied Georgia, pushing ever closer to the capital Tbilisi and bisecting the country, the relief effort for nearly two weeks has had only one prime directive: Find every Jew.

The most recent parallel to the Georgian relief effort, spearheaded by the Jewish communities of Tbilisi and Gori alongside the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, would be the 1999 Kosovo conflict, when Jewish groups sought out and provided aid to fewer than 100 Jews in the war-torn area.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, which provides significant funding for both the JDC and Jewish Agency, has launched an emergency appeal to supplement the annual campaign funding being used to help the Jews in the region. It has raised $17,000, according to UJC officials.

The current conflict has displaced more than 200 families—some 300 individuals—and stranded dozens behind the Russian lines, where transit is nearly impossible and communication lines have fallen apart.

The displaced have made their way to Tbilisi.

After a first wave of frantic immigration to Israel—three El Al flights in the first week evacuated scores of Israeli citizens and dozens of Georgian immigrants—the relief agencies and local Jews are now picking up the pieces and trying to put the rest of the community back together.

In Tbilisi, the first stop for refugees has been the JDC-funded community center in an Armenian district near the city center built in 2003.

For two days, more than 200 families lined up at the window holding stacks of receipts. At the window, Rafael Mesingisen waited to take the receipts and trade them for black bags of food and other necessities.

Mesingisen, 66, is the chairman of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Georgia, which pulls together community leaders from eight Georgian cities with Jewish populations.

Those cities are now rent apart, effectively isolated by the Russian army, which patrols Georgia’s main east-west highway with impunity.

All day Monday and Tuesday, Mesingisen passed the black bags through the window to family after family, most of whom are from Gori. He smiled to everyone from beneath his black kipah as a photo of the Lubavitcher rebbe looked on.

Some of those that made their way to Tbilisi were easy to find, but some had no idea that Jewish organizations were looking for them and wanted to help.

More than 50,000 refugees are scattered across Tbilisi and its environs. Those without family in the capital or special organizations to help them are living in makeshift shelters without beds that smell of days-old perspiration. Or they may be staying in tent camps on the city outskirts.

In this regard, at least, the Georgian Jewish refugees are lucky.

“What do you think? Are you glad to be a Jew today?” Mesingisen asks the refugees at his window. “We’re not happy today, but we’re glad that we were born Jews.”

When the conflict began, Mesingisen got on his phone and started the search, using what is referred to here as “Jewish radio” to mine the social connections of the close-knit communities and bring them back into the fold.

Some Jews fell through the cracks, and JDC officials visited the refugee camps over the weekend looking for stragglers.

Among others, they found the Yosefbashvilis. The five-member family fled Gori on Sunday as the Russian troops crossed into the city. Once in Tbilisi, they registered with the government’s refugee office and were sent to a school, where they stayed two nights with no beds and dozens more refugees.

Two of the three teenagers in Tomas Yosefbashvili’s family study at university in Tbilisi, but they didn’t have anywhere to turn in the capital. Now they have two rooms in a hotel 20 yards from the Jewish community center.

On Tuesday they picked up their food and aid. Before that, they only had their documents and the clothes they were wearing.

“I already knew that the Jewish people were good people, but now I can put a stamp on it,” Yosefbashvili said, referring to the official stamp needed to accomplish anything in former Soviet countries.
Most of the refugees have found shelter with Jewish families in Tbilisi who have opened their homes to their fellow Jews. One family alone is hosting 22 refugees, JDC officials said.

From her office in the corner of the community center, Elen Berkovich has managed another piece of the aid puzzle. As a representative of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, she has parsed out thousands of dollars in cash handouts to refugees, ranging from $200 to $500 per family, depending on need.

The funds come from the congress, headed by Kazakh oligarch Alexander Machkevich, but the cash flowed under the urging of Josef Zissels, the congress’ representative in Ukraine—another country eyeing Russia’s actions in Georgia with trepidation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Georgian troops would begin to pull out, but they appear only to have dug deeper into the vital arteries of this mountainous republic.

Relief agencies are preparing for a protracted effort to maintain the well-being of Georgia’s Jews before they can move on with the work of rehabilitation, said Amir Ben Zvi, a Ukraine-based staff member of the JDC’s Georgia operation.

The situation is even more desperate for those on the other side of Russian lines—in Gori and other cities. The road to Gori is lined with Russian snipers, checkpoints and tree-camouflaged tanks.

No Western reporters have been allowed to enter the city through the main road for days and relief workers have been let through sparingly. On Tuesday, Sergey Vlasov made the trip as head of the JDC’s Tbilisi office and a Georgian citizen.

The JDC had a list there of 27 Jews remaining in the city. Vlasov and his driver found all of them, including three Israelis.

After a brief skirmish with Ossetian militia, Vlasov was able to make the trip back to Tbilisi and report to the families of the Gori Jews with whom he spoke. Those still there have no desire to leave, say JDC and Jewish Agency officials, mostly concerned that their property will be looted.

Concerned that their efforts might be stymied, the JDC has signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the Georgian Red Cross to assure continued assistance to the Jews still in need.

The JDC, meanwhile, says the number of Jews in Tbilisi is 4,000 to 4,500, well below the 10,000 estimated by Jewish groups when their latest efforts began.
The Jewish Agency is preparing to send some 50 teenagers from the local communities, at an estimated cost of $1,500 to $1,700 per child, to Israel for a 10-day camp experience. The program, slated for early September, is to provide a respite for 13- to 16-year-olds caught in the conflict.

For certain, the hardest-hit city in the conflict has been the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russian and Georgian forces leveled the city in fierce fighting as the war broke out.

The city’s two dozen Jews fled north to Russia, but rumors persisted that one Jew—an old woman—had stayed behind.

On Monday, JDC workers in Tbilisi were jubilant: They had found Rivka Rosa Jinjikhashvili, 71, in the middle of the war zone, and someone would be visiting her home to cook a hot meal later that day.

But Jinjikhashvili’s home is in ruins. She has moved to a summer annex nearby, and no one knows when her city will come back to life again around her.

—JTA senior editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report

Jews trapped on both sides of Russian-Georgian conflict

MOSCOW (JTA) — Vissarion Manasherov left his city as the bombs were falling.

One day later, on Monday, with bombs still falling, he returned to Gori, a city at the edge of war, to convince the few Jewish families still in the area to leave. The Russians were at their doorstep, he told them.

Manasherov, the community’s leader and a local emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said he fled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with a wave of 200 Jews, leaving fewer than a dozen compatriots behind.

“I was the last to leave,” he said. “But I went back. And we’ll go back.”

As the conflict between Georgia and Russia moved toward an uneasy stalemate Tuesday, the migration of refugees away from the devastated capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia spread farther and more Jews emerged from the fog of war.

Ossetians and Georgians fled north to Russia through a mountain tunnel or south to Tbilisi, while others boarded planes to Israel.

The evacuation effort has been a joint project of international Jewish organizations working in close conjunction with the Israeli government. The Israeli Embassy has become a hub of activity where leaders and refugees have shuttled to and from since the conflict began.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of the agencies working on the ground, estimates that more than 700 Jews have been displaced in recent days.

Jews caught on both sides of the conflict looked back at the damage with starkly different political viewpoints.

“Who’s at fault? Who bombed whom? Who fired the first shot?” Manasherov said by telephone from the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi. “War is war. It’s hard to say who is right and who is at fault.”

Russia has taken a hard line against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, branding his initial incursion into South Ossetia as genocide and strongly defending its campaign into undisputed Georgian territory.

Following days of fighting, which left scores of casualties, leaders from Georgia and Russia took tentative steps toward ending the latest conflagration in the war-weary Caucasus region Russia’s largest use of force outside its borders since 1989.

On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an end to attacks beyond Georgia’s border with South Ossetia while Saakashvili pressed a cease-fire agreement. Saakashvili also announced to thousands in Tbilisi that Georgia would leave the Commonwealth of Independent States, an umbrella organization largely controlled by Russia.

The conflagration began Aug. 8 when Russian tanks and soldiers poured into South Ossetia, which fought a war for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia said it was protecting its citizens and peacekeepers from a Georgian attempt to secure the capital, Tskhinvali.

Saakashvili had made the reunification of Georgia with its breakaway republics a central plank of his campaigns as he cultivated close ties with the West, sending soldiers to U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as seeking entry to the NATO alliance.

Saakashvili’s distance from Russia chafed at then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow holds little love for the poster child of democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

Amid the uncertainty, Jewish rescue and relief agencies worked throughout the fighting and planned to continue their work to assist refugees in need.

The Jewish Agency helped evacuate 31 Georgians to Israel aboard special flights Tuesday. The agency said others have applied to make aliyah and their paperwork is being expedited.

Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency’s emissary to the former Soviet Union, accompanied Gori’s community leader Manasherov to the city on Monday and saw columns of Georgian troops leaving the city.

“The situation is tense now very, very tense,” Katz said. “We are used to this as Israelis, but it is a very complicated situation now.”

The JDC, meanwhile, has eight representatives in the region helping to locate and rescue local Jews, as well as provide food and medical relief in both Georgia and Russia.

The head regional representative said the JDC had helped evacuate a Jewish family from a bombed-out building in Gori on Monday.

Most of the more than 200 Georgian Jewish refugees who have made their way to Tbilisi are staying with relatives and friends there. Between 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Georgia, mostly in the capital.

The local Chabad community, headed by Rabbi Avraham Michaelashvili, organized a three-day blood drive for victims, and Chabad rabbis have worked to ensure safe passage for a group of 50 Israeli tourists vacationing on the Black Sea, according to reports from the Chabad Web site.

Georgian troops withdrew Sunday from South Ossetia, a pro-Russian de facto state since 1992. Russia has issued passports to South Ossetian citizens for years and served as a peacekeeping force in the region.

Before wave after wave of ethnic conflict shook the foundations of Tskhinvali starting in 1992, there was a growing Jewish community of more than 2,000 people in the city of 30,000.

The JDC listed the number of Jews in Tskhinvali at 19, as of one month ago. Nothing was heard for days from these refugees.

But the JDC representative in Vladikavkaz, the Russian regional capital closest to the conflict, said they had located five of the Tskhinvali Jews, including girls aged 6 and 16. The girls had made their way to the Russian city with the younger girl’s grandmother after spending several days huddled in a basement without food or water.

The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to safety concerns, said the experience of hiding from the shelling in the Ossetian capital had badly shaken the teenager.

On the Russian border, the representative said the Russian government was refusing help from international aid organizations and JDC was the only nongovernmental organization operating in Vladikavkaz.

Mark Petrushansky, the chairman of the Vladikavkaz Jewish community, said emotions were running high on the Russian side of the conflict, stoked by sometimes shocking images on television of the aftermath in Tskhinvali.

Petrushansky said he saw television footage of a Jewish child he knew from a local school fleeing Tskhinvali with her grandmother to Russia. Incensed, he placed the blame on Georgia and Saakashvili for starting “this horrible massacre.”

Georgia on his mind