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Across the Former Soviet Union After Attacks at Russian Synagogues, Jews Taking Security into Own Ha

In the wake of two recent attacks on Russian synagogues, Jewish officials have announced initiatives aimed at increasing security at the country’s Jewish institutions. The initiatives come after two incidents last week: In one, an attacker left eight people wounded at a Moscow synagogue; in the other, a synagogue attack was prevented in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

The incidents have raised the issue of who’s responsible for security at Russian Jewish sites: While most Jewish groups are taking security into their own hands, at least one prominent Russian Jewish leader believes the government and police should take charge of the issue.

The Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish organization in charge of most of the country’s synagogues, has announced the launch of Magen David, a Jewish security fund.

The group has called on its supporters in Russian and abroad to raise donations toward providing 24-hour security for its institutions and synagogues across Russia.

This week, Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis and a federation leader, sent a letter to the heads of Russia’s Jewish communities, asking them to take greater care to the security issues of their institutions including synagogues, schools and community centers.

Currently, Russian Jewish institutions hire private companies to provide security; only a handful of synagogues can boast of more advanced security systems. Usually, most Jewish institutions have only unarmed security personnel at the doors, similar to what most public places — including supermarkets, restaurants or movie theaters have in Russia.

Following last week’s attacks, Lazar met with leaders of Russian law enforcement agencies, including Russian minister of internal affairs and the head of the Moscow police. According to the federation, the issue of “strengthening the state’s role in providing for the safety of the Jewish community” was discussed in these meetings.

In his letter to the Jewish community leaders, Lazar mentioned that police in most Western European countries provide round-the-clock patrolling of Jewish religious and community buildings.

But it remains unclear whether the Jewish community can count on police force or government funds in dealing with security matters.

While many government officials condemned the stabbing incident in Moscow on Jan.11, none spoke publicly of a possibility to get police involved in helping Jews to cope with their security concerns.

In the meantime, the federation said the funds it is raising will go toward the purchase and installation of metal doors, metal detectors, panic buttons and cameras for video observation.

Another Russian Jewish umbrella group, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations, is also going to call on its constituents to raise funds to improve security measures at its provincial synagogues and Jewish institutions.

But a leading figure in the country’s Jewish community criticized these steps, saying the community should demand that the state takes appropriate measures to protect it.

“It all sounds like an internal police force is being created,” Vyacheslav “Moshe” Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, told a news conference on Tuesday, referring to the Magen David Foundation.

Kantor said the Jewish organizations should not try to substitute for police.

“The most we should do is to monitor the situation. Protection of the citizens, including Jews, is not a corporate task; this is a national task. As citizens and taxpayers we can demand protection,” Kantor said, adding though that “the authorities themselves will never do anything unless we demand it.”

Aside from security measures, Kantor believes there must be a national program to fight xenophobia. In particular, he said, there should be a particular emphasis on teaching the history of the Holocaust.

“What happened in our synagogues is a direct result of tragic forgetfulness,” he said. “It is not enough to install security equipment in the synagogues,” he said. “We should learn how to work with our youth, especially from problem groups and problem regions.”

But other leaders contest that while this may be a long-term priority, the Jewish community should learn how to protect itself right now.

With this in mind, another group is going to launch a program that will teach self-defense techniques to local Jewish communities.

The program has found an unlikely home: the Institute for Jewish Studies, a Moscow-based institution associated with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli scholar best known for his translations of the Talmud into modern Hebrew, English and Russian and for his efforts to spread Jewish knowledge into smaller communities across the former Soviet Union.

The project will be a combination of martial arts, psychology training and Jewish values, explained David Palant, director of the Institute for Jewish Studies.

The institute’s project, also called Magen David, will seek to train some two dozen trainers from local communities, who after a year-long education in Moscow will start self-defense courses in their communities. Palant described the core idea behind this train-a-trainer project as a “mix of Eastern martial arts and Jewish spirituality.”

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