Was Russian Jewish center aided by BACJRR torched?

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California/April 1999
By Lev Krichevsky and Leslie Katz

Moscow -- Days after authorities in the Russian city of Borovichi granted a public space to the local Jewish community, the building sustained serious damage in what local Jews believe was an anti-Semitic arson attack.

According to Edward Alekseev, leader of the small Jewish community in the city halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the fire Monday of last week totally destroyed the roof of the building intended to house a synagogue and Jewish center. No one was injured in the incident, which firefighters said was arson.

The Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco reacted with disappointment to the fire. The organization had spearheaded a massive effort to help the Jews of Borovichi, who had been targeted by the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity Party.

Pnina Levermore, BACJRR executive director, said the fire was likely a backlash against town authorities' granting the space to Jews, as well as banning neo-Nazi activities, and initiating a successful seminar to counter anti-Semitic and hate propaganda among the town's youth.

Those moves followed an international campaign launched after the tiny Jewish community of 500 in Borovichi reported a dramatic increase in neo-Nazi activities. Most of the Jewish families received hate mail and anti-Semitic posters were plastered throughout the city of 80,000. A Jewish cemetery was vandalized.

Within six months of the campaign's start, the Jewish community got its space in the center of town. And the local legislature passed four laws prohibiting the Russian National Unity Party from inciteful activities.

According to Alekseev, Borovichi Mayor Vladimir Ogonkov contacted him to express sympathy over the fire and to say he wished he had resources in the local treasury to help with the restoration of the building.

However, the mayor said he promised to take additional steps to counter hate in his community.

"The current situation is extremely complicated and requires close consultation with the local Jewish community and the supportive government officials in Borovichi," said Levermore. She is currently visiting Russia and will stop in Borovichi early next month.

On learning of the threats to the city's Jews, the BACJRR sent an alert to the local Jewish community and to congressional leaders. When the word went out over the Internet, hundreds of letters and e-mails of concern poured into Borovichi from as far away as Argentina, Spain and Germany.

A "dear colleague" letter garnered the signatures of more than 50 members of Congress.

Following last week's fire, activists renewed their commitment to aid Jews who have decided to remain in the former Soviet Union.

"This latest possible arson attack demonstrates that our work is not yet completed," said Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jewry.

"Jews and democratic government officials in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union must know that the West will stand by them in their struggle for human rights, democracy and pluralism in this troubled region."

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