An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine arrests three alleged terrorists accused of targeting Jews in Uman

(JTA) — Ukrainian police arrested three men they said were terrorists who, in their efforts to pit ethnic groups against one another, also targeted Jews in the central city of Uman.

The men were arrested earlier this month at a border crossing while carrying explosives, according to the KP news site. Citing unnamed officials from the regional prosecutor’s office, the news site reported that the suspects were planning to blow up a monument for Hungarians in a bid to escalate tensions over legislation in Ukraine that outlaws the use of Hungarian at elementary schools.

The three suspects were also behind a string of anti-Semitic incidents, according to the report, including the hurling on Sept. 21 of a grenade at Jewish pilgrims in Uman, where 30,000 Jews convene each year on Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the Jewish holiday near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

They are also accused of dousing a synagogue in Uman with red paint in 2016 and leaving a pig’s head there – an incident that many people attributed to hatred of Jews and locals’ growing dissatisfaction with problems associated with the pilgrimage.

They are further accused of spraying the words “death to Jews” on the synagogue in Chernivtsi in November and trying to set fire to the synagogue in Lviv in July. The suspects denied these and other allegations.

Though prosecutors have not said this, the arrests prompted theories that the three suspects were working for Russia to exacerbate social tensions in Ukraine and give the country a bad image abroad.

Russia and Ukraine have exchanged allegations of sabotage after 2014, when a revolution led by nationalists in Ukraine toppled the rule of former president Viktor Yanukovych, whom some critics said was a corrupt Russian stooge. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backs separatists in Ukraine’s east.

The two countries have also exchanged accusations of anti-Semitism in an apparent attempt to discredit each other in the West.

A film crew preparing to record at the former concentration camp known as the Seventh Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania on July 12, 2016. Photo by JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz

Lithuanian troops train at former concentration camp where 5,000 Jews are buried

Lithuanian soldiers training to fight Russian troops pitched tents on the grounds of a former concentration camp and burial ground for Jews in Kaunas.

A battalion of special forces troops camped Monday at Seventh Fort, the first of dozens of concentration camps established by Nazi Germany following its 1941 eastward invasion, the Kauno Diena news website reported Thursday. The deployment is part of a military drill.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to JTA questions about the exact nature of the deployment.

The remains of 5,000 murdered Jews are buried at the fort in mass graves that are marked by a few poles and rocks. Relatives sometimes visit the site to light candles in memory of the dead.

Privatized by the government in 2009, the Seventh Fort, a disused 18-acre bunker complex, is run by a nongovernmental organization headed by Vladimir Orlov, a 38-year-old amateur historian and military enthusiast.

His organization charges entrance fees to the grounds, where it operates summer camps for children and hosts private events. Revenues are used for the site’s preservation as an educational institution where the genocide is taught alongside Lithuanian military heritage, Orlov told JTA last year. He declined to say how much revenue the site generates and how much is spent on commemoration.

The Jewish Community of Lithuania last year said the privatization was a “huge mistake” that happened despite its stated opposition.

Like the other two Baltic states, the Lithuanian government’s concern about the expansionist policies of Russia has prompted it to update its own defense capabilities. This summer, thousands of troops trained with NATO contingents across the country.

Efraim Zuroff, a hunter of Nazis and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s point man on issues concerning Eastern Europe, condemned the deployment as showing “incredible lack of sensitivity” by the authorities at a site where Lithuanian militiamen led the wholesale slaughter of thousands of people within the space of two days in July 1941.

Zuroff, who has written extensively about Lithuania and the Seventh Fort, said the deployment raises concerns as to potential desecration of burial grounds, since the area where the bodies are buried “is not fenced off,” he added.

Between July 4-6 in 1941, local militiamen belonging to the pro-Fascist National Defence Battalion carried out the murder of 3,000 people at the Seventh Fort. That unit was a precursor of the collaborationist Security Police Battalions, which worked with the German Nazis in occupied Lithuania.

Jewish Federations establishes fund for Ukrainian Jews

The Jewish Federations of North America has launched a Ukraine Assistance Fund.

The money raised by the umbrella group will be used to provide security for Jewish institutions and offer assistance to individuals as the country faces turmoil sparked by its recent revolution and the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

“As the situation escalates, needs in the Ukrainian Jewish community become even more acute,” said Michael Siegal, chair of the Jewish Federations’ board of trustees.

Ukraine has an estimated 300,000 Jews, many of whom live in poverty.

July 4th as a day of reflection

This coming Thursday, the Jewish community, alongside all other Americans, will be celebrating the fourth of July and the Independence of The United States of America. The relationship between Jews and America is one that is not only a historical phenomenon but is indeed an outstanding human and moral phenomenon in human history. 

Despite the fact that the Jewish people are a people who lived in so many different countries, who experienced close exposure to so many cultures and attitudes the American Jewish experience is one of the most exceptional and fascinating ones in our history. Typically Jews, wherever they lived, did a lot to integrate be accepted, and to be appreciative and respectful to the countries that have granted them with homage and hospitality.  This appreciation showed itself in many different ways that varied from special prayers said in synagogue wishing well to the local governments, paying taxes, in serving in the local armies and so on. In many cases Jews did not only pay much courtesy to the countries they were living in but many cases adopted the identity of the countries they were living in; British Jews saw themselves as British, French Jews saw themselves as Frenchman, and Russian Jews saw themselves as Russian. The gratitude to the hosting country became an an adoption of identity. What began, for example, we gratitude to Napoleon and the French for their emancipation had slowly become a character adoption. 

After so many centuries of oppression we developed some kind of Stockholm syndrome where we suddenly began to see the countries in which we were oppressed as great redeemers once they granted us freedom; we suddenly no longer saw freedom as a means to the end of being able to practice what we believed in but we began to see it as an end to itself. Being able to practice Judaism freely in France, for example, was no longer the goal but it was rather becoming Frenchman and woman that was our goal. This, however,  was not a one sided trend; when granted civil rights in the eighteenth  and nineteenth century Jews were expected to fully integrate and become a part of the societies they were living in. When Napoleon granted French Jews civil rights he made it clear that intermarriage and full integration into society is expected and should be concomitant with the granting of civil rights. This was not the case only in France, other counties such as Russia, Germany, and more. These countries showed clear expectations and anticipation that the Jews abandon their religious practices that separate them from societies they are living in and fully integrate into the societies that granted them freedom.

And then came America. From its earliest days The United States of America was a welcoming, open, and safe haven for Jews; this did not only manifest itself in George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish community of Rohde Island where he assured their religious freedom expressed his vision of Jews living freely in America, but was indeed the practice of the land. From America’s earliest day Jews enjoyed a great deal of freedom and security and the American people have excelled far beyond any other people in the extent of opportunity, tolerance, and safety extended towards the Jews in America. This uniqueness was outstanding that Jews were no longer just tolerated but were recognized; unlike in European countries where Jew were tolerated despite their religion, Jews were tolerated and seen as full members of society with their religious having no bearing on what their status in the country would be. So much so that being Jewish was not only not an obstacle towards full social rights but, as renowned British novelist Howard Jacobson put it, ”You often feel that to be American is to be Jewish”.

With this realization in mind it would be an epic loss for us not to take advantage of this outstanding opportunity; to not realize that in today’s America where Jews are not only tolerated and unconditionally accepted but are also welcomed and appreciated would be a historical  mistake.

As Jewish learning and adult education in Israel and America flourish and learning opportunities abound it is essential that we take this opportunity to embrace our Jewishness, to find out what it means, and to persue a higher level of understanding of it.

To be satisfied with the level of knowledge we have had at our Bar and Bat Mitzvas and to not pursue a more mature and deeper understanding of what Judaism is all about at this beautiful juncture of history would be a mistake for which history will never forgive us.

We have been blessed; we have been immensely blessed- let us have the courtesy to go and pick up our gift. God Bless America.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is Fellow, The Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Law, Yeshiva University

Russian-speaking Jews launch group in Iran fight

An international Jewish organization of Russian-speaking Jews was launched to influence governments to join the fight against Iran.

The World Forum of Russian Jewry was inaugurated Wednesday at the United Nations during a ceremony commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacres with the participation of nearly 600 American Russian-speaking Jews and Holocaust survivors.

Alexander Levin, president of the Greater Kiev Jewish Community, will head the organization.

“Our goal is to bring together Russian-speaking Jews from around the world in order to save ourselves and other people from the next catastrophe and genocide, to preserve the world peace, and protect our national land at the State of Israel,” Levin said.

“I would like to remind you that there is today a member country of the United Nations that is currently on the road to obtaining a nuclear weapon whose president, without
blinking an eye, tells the humanity that the Holocaust is a deception and that it never occurred. We, the Russian-speaking Jews from the far-flung corner of the Earth, stand ready to unite against him and the nuclear program of Iran. We will not let another Holocaust engulf us.”

Levin has brought several Levin has co-opted several established Russian-speaking organizations, including the American Forum of Russian Jewry, under the umbrella of his new organization, according to the Forward. There are forums in Canada, Israel, Europe and Australia, and plans for 18 new offices this year in Russian-speaking communities worldwide.

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

Spectator – Family Doc Unlocks Doors

Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y, Eileen Douglas lived for the moments she could climb into her grandfather’s lap and find the pennies he brought — special for her. He faithfully visited his grandchildren every day after leaving his work as a butcher. Yet he never really spoke about his upbringing in Kovno, Lithuania.

“I thought we weren’t allowed to talk about it, that if you did, you would hurt the family,” Douglas recalled. “My grandfather died suddenly when I was 12 and I never got to say goodbye.”

Some 25 years after her grandfather died, Douglas paid a visit to her childhood home and stumbled upon a series of forgotten family photographs.

“These were people I’d never seen before,” Douglas recalled. “I was shocked … they shattered my identity. How could it be that I did not know my own story?”

A broadcast journalist who spent her life telling the stories of other people, Douglas decided to apply years of professional expertise to her own personal history. The resulting 2004 documentary, “My Grandfather’s House,” records a poignant family saga that many Jews will find familiar.

Written and narrated by Douglas, the film, which screens Monday at the Skirball Center, unfolds like a personal diary as it chronicles the events that lead to the filmmaker’s trip to Kovno. Accompanied by her adult daughter, Douglas searches for the home where her grandfather lived. Finally, as a woman in her 50s, she learns how her grandfather escaped conscription into the czar’s army by fleeing to America. She also discovers how other relatives got herded into the Kovno Ghetto.

Douglas Steinman, who co-produced “My Grandfather House,” views his partner’s quest as “reversing the breaking of the glass, of restoring a family to one piece.”

The detective work involved in making the film put Douglas in touch with more than 30 family members in North America, Russia and Israel that she either never met or had not heard from in years.

“I’ve got my family back,” she said, “both living and dead.”

“My Grandfather’s House” screens Sept. 19, 7 p.m, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. $5 (general). For information, call (818) 771-5554 or visit


Democracy in the Mideast?

President George W. Bush is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. Last week, the State Department announced it will invest $25 million to promote democracy throughout the Arab world. The goals of the program, which will train political advocates, journalists and others, are economic reform and private sector development, education, promotion of civil society and respect for the rule of law.

But is throwing money at the problem enough? Bush’s initiative begs the question: How might democracy blossom in a culture where none has existed in the past? Will it flourish organically, or will it require some gentle prodding, such as with the butt of a gun, for example?

Historically, democracies have emerged from centuries of dictatorships and monarchies. Some have become democracies only after unconditional surrender (Japan and Germany). Others have seemed to choose democracy without any formal surrender (Russia). What explains this difference?

Part of the answer may lie in timing. Russia is the most recent of the three democracies I’ve mentioned. Unlike the others, Russia became a democracy during the media age, and during the beginning of the globalization of information.

Similarly, forces are now emerging that may encourage the Arab world to democracy. Here are some:

(1) Globalization and the Internet. As Thomas Friedman explains in his new book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," we are seeing democratization of (a) financial markets; (b) technology; (c) information; and (d) politics. Until recently, the Arab world has successfully prevented Western news sources from "contaminating" their subjects, using brutal repression and controlling their media. But the Arab world can’t stop the Internet or satellite news. Saudi Arabia has recently instituted a policy of allowing access to the Internet to university students, albeit at limited speeds, and only for five minutes at a time. However, this may be the first crack in the dam.

(2) The Plight of Arab Women: One day, the media will turn its cameras to the barbaric manner in which the Arab world treats women. It will expose the Arab world’s ritualized female circumcision as a form of sexual control, use of rape as an official tool of punishment and execution of unmarried women for merely holding a man’s hand — to say nothing of women’s utter inability to participate in society. This exposure will create pressure on the Arab world to make other social reforms.

(3) Oil. This may be the biggest factor. Saudi Arabian Muhammad Al-Sabban, head of the senior economic advisory to the Saudi Oil Ministry, acknowledged that Arab oil will play a major role in the world’s energy mix only for the next 15 years, at most. Once this bargaining chip vanishes, the Arab world’s ability to act as a force of menace will diminish — like a school bully who suddenly shrinks a foot or two. What will also diminish is the West’s one reason to pander to the brutal dictatorships in the Arab world. So, too, will the non-oil-producing Arabs’ power wane (such as the Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians), all of whom now enjoy the indirect benefits of the collective oil cudgel from their Arab brethren.

(4) Generally Accepted Democratic Principles. Here’s an irony: Despite their angry beating of the chest when it comes to the West, most Arab dictatorships actually claim to observe democratic principles. As brutal a dictator as Arafat is, for example, he still insists his people have chosen him in fair democratic elections, and that his press is "free." Dictators do this to appear as honest brokers to the outside world. This is like the embezzler who insists he zealously follows generally accepted accounting principles. He does so because he implicitly acknowledges the correctness of those principles. Similarly, in making their claims of democratic treatment of their people, are these dictators not actually acknowledging democracy as the "proper" form of rule? One day, the Arab people may ask: if our leaders praise democracy, then why aren’t we one?

Some will argue that these factors may topple the existing governments, but will lead, at best. to anarchy or greater fundamentalism. For democracy to occur, they will say the West’s intervention is necessary, as it was necessary after World War II. But the world has changed since then: everyone can now see what everyone else is doing, and everyone can more easily see how the other world lives. And so the factors that previously led to the democratization of Russia may also now lead to the organic democratization of the Arab world. For that to occur, we may only need to ensure the continuing globalization of information. And that is a force no Arab country can hope to stop.

Barak Lurie is an Israeli and American citizen and a specialist on Middle East affairs. He serves as general counsel for the Sterling Corp.

Lighten Up

With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.

Jewish Folk Dance in Bolshoi

Everything looked normal under the columns of the main entrance of the Moscow Bolshoi Theater – a full house, lots of people eager for tickets and scalpers asking for $15, which is a lot for Moscow.But the performance inside was a departure for the Bolshoi. Through its 200-year history, the Bolshoi has been famous for classical ballet and opera, but it was also the scene where Lenin and Trotsky spoke to ardent revolutionary crowds and Stalin greeted mass gatherings of his secret police officers during the great purges of the 1930s.

The sight of numerous bearded Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in the VIP boxes, instead of party leaders or presidents of the states, watching Jewish dancing and singing, was very unusual, even for the Bolshoi.Huge background images of Chagall’s Israeli Knesset goblins with their flying and meditating Byelorussian shtetl Jews added to the unreality of what was going on in the theater. Hundreds of descendants of those Chagall Jews who stayed in Russia were sitting in the parterre and the boxes, while other descendants of the same Jews who fled Russia were performing Israeli folk dances before them on stage.

Sixteen dancers from Keshet Chaim, the L.A.-based contemporary dance troupe, performed Tues., Sept. 19, at the Bolshoi in the opening gala concert of a weeklong festival of Jewish arts and culture in Moscow. The Third Annual Solomon Mikoel International Art Festival, organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, featured dance, vocal and musical performances by 500 Russian, Israeli, U.S., French and Austrian artists.

Amidst the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, some Chabad rabbis left their places in the boxes when the group was dancing on the stage – probably to show their disapproval of Jewish girls dancing in public. But Eytan Avisar, the artistic director of the ensemble, says the troupe has generally good relations with Chabad. Moreover, the troupe and he personally are inspired by the Chassidic traditional dance, he said.An Israeli who moved to the U.S., Avisar can devote only part of his time to the troupe. He views his mission, and that of the ensemble, to express and bring the global spirit of Judaism and the Jewish culture to the rest of the world. The group, a pioneer in the development of Jewish dance, has performed across the U.S., and traveled to Mexico, Australia, Spain and elsewhere.

Michail Gluz, the general director of the Mikoel Festival, who became a pioneer in the development of Jewish culture in post-Communist Russia in the late 1980s, met the troupe in Israel last year. Gluz, a musician, composer and producer who has always had a sense of a mission to spread Jewish culture and explore its multiethnic roots, immediately knew they had to work together.

Genie Benson, the director of the troupe, says the dancers, including herself, were a little hesitant at first to step on the stage where world-famous Russian ballet-star Maya Plisetskaya danced. But Plisetskaya, the queen of the Bolshoi and an ethnic Jew, would most probably have felt as happy as the hundreds of Muscovites watching Jewish boys and girls from L.A. performing a Chassidic dance.

Bloodless Coup

Escalating tensions in the Russian Jewish community exploded for all to see this week as authorities arrested Vladimir Goussinsky, the media tycoon who also serves as the president of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC).

Tuesday’s arrest, reportedly on charges of fraud and embezzlement, came just hours after 26 Lubavitch rabbis gathered in Moscow to elect Rabbi Berel Lazar the chief rabbi of Russia.While unconnected on the surface, the two developments are linked in that they could have major implications for Russian Jewry and its relations to the Kremlin.Russia’s chief rabbi is important because that individual is the only official representative of the Jewish community recognized by the government.

The election of Lazar as chief rabbi comes just a week after the country’s chief rabbi for the past decade, Adolph Shayevich, accused the Russian government of seeking his ouster.Shayevich, who is backed by Goussinsky’s RJC, later backtracked from his statement, but has insisted that he had felt pressure to resign, especially from Russia’s Lubavitch community.

Both observers and players on the scene have expressed concern that the communal in-fighting is clearly linked to the bitter rivalry between Goussinsky and Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, and that the rivalry has spilled over in dangerous ways to the Jewish community, which numbers an estimated 600,000.Goussinsky’s problem is that he supported Putin’s political rivals, and the offices of Media-Most, the tycoon’s media empire, had been targeted in recent weeks by the government, which has been cracking down on the media.

Putin, who was out of the country when Goussinsky was arrested Tuesday, told Russian reporters he was surprised by the move.The arrest prompted American Jewish organizations to come to Goussinsky’s defense.Goussinsky “enjoys the strong support” of the organized American Jewish community in his leadership role” as president of the RJC,” said a statement by NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.Saying that “basic freedoms appear to be challenged” in Russia today, the statement added: “We expect the Russian authorities to follow due process and international legal standards with respect to Mr. Goussinsky and to assure the full rights of the Russian Jewish community.”

Jewish officials also expressed skepticism over Putin’s reaction, saying he most likely was involved.For his part, Lazar, the new chief rabbi called upon the Russian government to immediately free Goussinsky and that he was sure Goussinsky would comply with the authorities’ investigation.The Lubavitch rabbis who elected Lazar chief rabbi were delegates of the Congress of Jewish Communities in Russia, which opened Monday and was organized by the Lubavitch dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

The Federation, which became a legal entity last November as an umbrella structure, immediately received clear-cut signs of support from the government, including a meeting between its leaders and Putin, who was then acting president.

The Federation was immediately promoted by the state-controlled TV channel ORT, which is controlled by the controversial media tycoon and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, a rival of Goussinsky.The promotion led to accusations that the Federation was being supported by “Berezovsky’s people” in the Kremlin, most likely, according to sources, Alexander Voloshin, the head of Putin’s administration.Pavel Feldblum, the executive director of the Moscow Jewish community, said that since Lazar was elected only by Lubavitch rabbis, he can only be the chief rabbi of Lubavitch in Russia.

For their part, Lubavitch officials say the Federation represents 85 religious communities, and that the Lubavitch rabbis at the Moscow conference this week were authorized by their communities to elect a chief rabbi.

Gorin, Lubavitch’s spokesman, said after Lazar’s election that this is not “a putsch, it is a Velvet Revolution.”

Russia’s Elderly

In Samara, a city of 1.2 million in the Volgaregion of Russia, 87-year-old Anna sits in a 100-square-foot spacethat is her reality. One of perhaps 8,000 elderly Jews in town, shespends her lonely days confined to her room, blind and her legs tooweak to support her. A sagging bed takes up most of her room, whichis one of five apartments that constitute the communal apartment inwhich she exists. The other residents share one toilet and a dirtykitchen.

Anna, the daughter of the last rabbi of Samara,lost her only son during the Second World War and, more recently, herhusband to an automobile accident. She moved into a communal flatbecause she could not afford better.

Anna relies on Ana Spalin, who is the director ofthe local Chesed, the Jewish welfare agency. The efforts of the JointDistribution Committee ensure that Ana and a core of elderlyvolunteers visit Anna and hundreds of her counterparts twice weekly.That means entering the squalor of Anna’s sad reality — walkingacross a dingy courtyard and edging over a piece of wood that spansan open sewer as they approach her room. This is not atypical.

In visits to dozens of apartments, I encountereddozens of Annas, each one an individual and a Jew.

How does one describe a situation that is almostan epidemic of poverty? What can we say about a society that, fordecades, promised its suffering citizens a modicum of comfort intheir later years, only to see that minimal comfort evaporate associety goes through another revolution? This is what has happened inRussia and the other vestiges of the Soviet Union. The demise ofcommunism has occasioned unprecedented Jewish immigration. It hasresulted in an explosion of capitalism and opportunity for a growingmiddle class. And, regrettably, it has created an underclass ofperhaps the most vulnerable members of society, the elderly,estimated to number 500,000.

How does an elderly man or woman, living on afixed income, survive when hyper-inflation makes that incomeworthless? This is the question we must ponder when considering theJews of the former Soviet Union.

Living in shabby, sometimes miniscule apartmentsthroughout Russia are Jewish men and women who will most surelyperish if we don’t help them to live and, more importantly, to live with dignity.

My recent visit to Russia to consult with theAmerican Joint Distribution Committee was, on many levels, excitingand encouraging. But when contemplating the hell of old age there, itwas sobering and depressing. A few facts will illustrate:

* Thirty-eight of every 100 Russian Jews are olderthan 60 years of age.

* The Russian Jewish population is proportionatelyaging more rapidly than any other in the world.

* The monthly pension on which a Jewish senioradult struggles can be as low as $15 a month.

* Even a Russian Jew who is a decorated warveteran cannot count on more than $65 a month.

* If a senior adult breaks a hip in Russia today,chances for survival are almost nil.

* There is practically no public health care forthe elderly in Russia today. What exists is so substandard that touse it is almost tantamount to a death warrant.

* Most senior adults exist on a kilo of breadconsumed every few days.

* Thousands of Jewish aged live in what can onlybe described as a slum without adequate toilet or kitchenfacilities.

* Those who can live without adequate food aresurviving in abject isolation in a country where there are sevenmonths of dangerous winter.

It is the food packages, the prosthetic devicesand the connection to the outside world that 75 local Jewish welfareorganizations are offering to the elderly. They are part of what iscalled the “Chassidim,” not Chassidim in the religious sense but inthe sense of communal instruments of compassion. Today, they are thelifeline to Anna in Samara and to the 70,000 other souls reached bythem. We can be extremely proud that our support of the JointDistribution Committee, the “Joint,” through the United Jewish Fundis making much of this possible. At the same time, we should considerwhat it will mean if we can’t reach the next 70,000 in need, waitingfor that bag of rice, chocolate bar or friendly voice.

Leaving the dilapidated building where an87-year-old former pediatrician is living alone, my companion, who iscoordinating Jewish home-care service to the 5,000 elderly in thattown, looks particularly shaken. With an intensity in his eyes, hesays to me, “That man saved thousands of children during his career;shouldn’t he live with some dignity?”

John R. Fishel is the executive vice presidentof the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

JDC’s Priority:

Elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union are in a desperate situation as a result of the transition from Communism to capitalism, said Michael Schneider, executive director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Schneider, in Los Angeles last week to talk with top Jewish leaders and don-ors about the urgent financial needs of the 84-year-old international Jewish-aid organization, told The Journal that the JDC is in the midst of the third-largest relief and welfare operation in its 84-year history. The largest was the displaced-persons camps at the end of the World War II. Next was aiding Jews in the Pale of Settlement after the World War I. And now, the JDC’s biggest priority is providing relief and care to 170,000 elderly and impoverished Jews throughout the world. About 140,000 of them are in the former Soviet Union, and the remaining 30,000 are scattered throughout Eastern Europe, Muslim countries and elsewhere.

In Russia, many elderly may have been badly affected by the inflated ruble, which has lost more than half of its value since mid-August. Many are living on little more than a pound of bread a day, Schneider said. The JDC distributed 800,000 food packages in the former Soviet Union, each weighing about 20 pounds, he said. In addition, 1 million hot meals have been delivered.

But the situation is dire. On its existing funds — about $40 million a year, most of which comes from the monies collected by Jewish federations across the U.S. — the organization can just about handle its caseload of 140,000 people.

But it’s possible the number of needy could double in light of the ruble’s recent free-fall in Russia, Schneider told Los Angeles Federation leaders. Many elderly who are just hanging on could be pushed over the edge. “Feeding hungry, elderly Jews is a sacred obligation that we cannot deny,” said Schneider, who has headed the JDC since 1987. According to Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel, about $5 million of the money raised by the Federation’s United Jewish Fund helps fund the JDC’s relief, rescue and community work.

In addition to its relief work, the JDC is deeply involved in trying to renew Jewish communal life in the former Soviet Union. “Seven decades of Stalinism virtually destroyed Jewish knowledge, life, religion, culture,” Schneider said.

The JDC has spent the past 10 years helping to restore the infrastructure of Jewish life in these lands, once brimming with Yiddish culture. Schneider ticks off numbers to help tell the story of what has been accomplished: Establishing 54 full-time Jewish day schools, 225 Jewish supplementary schools, 59 Jewish community centers and 17 branches of Hillel in universities; providing 250,000 Jewish textbooks to schools and 150 containers of Russian-language Jewish books, which become instant Jewish libraries; training hundreds of lay and professional leaders. “There was nothing there 10 years ago,” Schneider said. But with the enthusiastic help of local Jewish communities, a huge renaissance of Jewish life is under way.

Since its founding in 1914, the JDC has been expected to go out of business because its purpose would be fulfilled. “But in every decade, we have had to react to the fortunes — and misfortunes — of history,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we’ll go out of business any time soon.”