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Georgian theater group defies court order to leave synagogue

MOSCOW, April 27 (JTA) — A theater troupe in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is preventing the Jewish community from regaining possession of a historic synagogue. Last year, Georgia’s Supreme Arbitrage Court ruled that the synagogue should be returned to the Jewish community, but the troupe, which is currently housed in the building, is refusing to leave. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has weighed in on the matter, ordering the mayor of Tbilisi to locate another building for the theater. But the mayor, who is backing the troupe, has yet to follow the court order and the presidential directive. The dispute mars what has been a long-standing tradition of friendship between Georgia and its Jewish community, which once totaled about 100,000 and has now dwindled to 15,000. Earlier this year, Georgia celebrated 26 centuries of Jewish settlement in the republic, and Shevardnadze said the government would sponsor a large-scale event commemorating Jewish life in Georgia in September. But Georgia’s chief rabbi, Ariel Levin, said that while the coming celebration is significant, the community will never accept that its religious property was taken away from them. Last month, Levin wrote a letter to Shevardnadze, expressing his concern regarding the troupe’s refusal to vacate the building. The theater has spent thousands of dollars on renovations, which is the major reason behind the group’s reluctance to leave, Levin said in a telephone interview from Tbilisi. At a meeting of the commission preparing this fall’s Jewish celebration, Shevardnadze said that he believed the Jewish community was the legal owner of the building. The building was erected in the late 19th century as an Ashkenazi synagogue. In the 1930s, it was transformed by Soviet authorities into a workers club and later into a movie theater. The troupe that moved into the former synagogue six years ago has maintained that the Jewish claim is baseless and is appealing the court’s decision. A commission created by Shevardnadze to solve the conflict is expected to rule on the matter soon. But Jewish activists fear that the decision may be unfavorable because the commission does not include any Jewish representatives. Jewish community activists say Georgian media reports have created the impression that the Jewish community has no valid claim on the building. Jewish leaders, once optimistic, now say the future of the building remains unclear. “I don’t know whether the dispute will ever be over,” said Levin. “The synagogue is ours” on paper, “but we can’t use it.”

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