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.”

July 4 in Latvia

July 4 is a great holiday to celebrate and to observe.  I have spent July 4 in many different places, among my favorite are at Dodger Stadium, at the beach for fireworks, or at a BBQ with family and friends.  Some of the other more memorable ones have been in Palo Alto for the 1994 World Cup semifinal match between USA and Brazil, in Boston to see the Pops, and in Israel in 2002 on a Federation mission (and everyone's phones started ringing which in Israel alerted everyone to an attack–but this one was not in Israel, it was at LAX).

However this year July 4 was a day to observe.  In many countries the US Ambassador hosts a BBQ to celebrate Independence Day on July 4, but not in Latvia.   July 4 is a national holiday commemorating the destruction of the synagogues in Latvia, including the Great Choral Synagogue in Riga where several hundred people were burned inside.

So rather than celebrating American Independence, at noon on July 4 in Riga, while most Americans were asleep in the USA, I was at the remains of the Great Choral Synagogue attending a ceremony observing the holiday and remembering those who perished.  To recognize the importance of this holiday in Latvia does not go unnoticed considering those in attendance, including Latvian President Andris Bērziņš and several Latvian government Ministers, United States Ambassador Mark Pekala and Israel Ambassador Hagit Ben Yaakov and nearly one dozen other ambassadors of various countries were also there.

President Bērziņš spoke eloquently, as did the Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs, Ambassador Ben Yaakov, US State Department Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Rabbi Andrew Baker.  Events as these that commemorate the Holocaust are important not just for remembering those who perished, but to keep us cognizant of the issues around the world still before us today regarding anti-semitism and hate directed towards other people whether be it religious, ethnic or social orientation.  And events like these are not just memorials and commemorations but a call to action which is why organizations like ADL, AJC, and JWW are so important.  Rabbi Baker closed his remarks saying “the lessons that we draw from today’s solemn commemorations are not only about the past. They are very much about our future.”

On restitution, a rundown of where they stand in Eastern Europe

The following is a rundown of some Eastern European countries and where they stand on restitution:

Poland: Has not enacted any form of private restitution or compensation for an estimated $30.5 billion worth of property confiscated by the Nazis, then the communists. The Jewish share of claims on the properties is estimated at 20 percent to 27 percent. Poland has a burdensome process for restitution of Jewish communal property. As of Aug. 31, of the total of 5,504 authorized claims filed by Jewish communities, the pertinent Regulatory Commission had adjudicated (entirely
or partially) only 2,289 claims. Most properties returned are the least valuable and require a considerable amount of investment for maintenance to comply with Polish preservation law.

Romania: More than 200,000 private property claims were submitted pursuant to the 2003 deadline set under Romania's private restitution law. As of 2010, only some 119,000 of the claims had been adjudicated; of the adjudicated claims, in fewer than half was some sort of remedy proposed. As of 2010, only 5 percent (or about 10,300) of the more than 200,000 claims were determined to be eligible for compensation (but compensation has not yet necessarily been received). The fund created to provide compensation has been suspended and critics have called the restitution process corrupt.

Latvia: Three hundred communal properties have never been returned or compensated. Since the failure of a 2006 bill at an estimated value of 32 million LVL, or $60 million, nothing has been accomplised despite many new attempts and prime ministerial commissions to study the issue.

Some of the most improved countries on the issue are Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

Lithuania: After considering several versions of restitution legislation, in 2009, the government proposed a compensation law based on what it claimed was 30 percent of the official value of those 152 properties. In June 2011, Lithuania's parliament approved the Law on Good Will Compensation for the Real Estate of Jewish Religious Communities authorizing the payment of 128 million litas (approximately $53 million) from 2013 to 2023 to compensate the Jewish community for communal property seized by the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes. The law provides that the compensation is to be used for religious, cultural, health, sports and educational needs of Jews in Lithuania. Under the law, compensation funds will be transferred to a foundation designated by the government that will be administered by a governing body representing the Jewish Community in Lithuania, the Religious Jewish Community of Lithuania and other Jewish religious, health, cultural and education organizations. The law also provides that 3 million litas (approximately $1.25 million) will be made in one-time payments in 2012 “to support people of Jewish nationality who lived in Lithuania and suffered from totalitarian regimes during the period of occupation.”

Czech Republic: In November, the lower house of Parliament approved a plan to return billions of dollars worth of communal property that was confiscated from Jews and Christians by previous communist governments. According to the bill, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities is set to receive $500,000 a year over 30 years.

Serbia: Serbia passed a private property restitution law in 2011. Although it excludes property seized during the Holocaust — a condition the Jewish community leaders expect to be modified — the law also notes that heirless property of Holocaust victims will be addressed in separate legislation.

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.