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Around the Jewish World Jews Safe in Nalchik Unrest, but Relatives in U.S. Worry About Future

October 24, 2005
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On the morning of Oct. 13, Galina Shalumova and her family were in their Brooklyn apartment, resting during the Yom Kippur fast. Galina was puttering around the kitchen while her mother-in-law, Svetlana, was in the next room, watching Russian television beamed in from Moscow.

“Come here, come here! Something is happening. There’s war in Nalchik!” Svetlana yelled out.

Indeed, thousands of miles away, their sleepy hometown in southern Russia suddenly had become the top story. The network was reporting that earlier that morning, at least 150 gunmen tried to commandeer eight locations in the predominantly Muslim city.

Gun battles with local police reportedly had claimed dozens of lives. Hostages were being held and corpses were shown lying in the streets.

The scenes conjured up images of Beslan, just 50 miles southeast of Nalchik. There, in September 2004, gunmen allied with extremists from nearby Chechnya took a primary school hostage, a crisis that left 331 people dead, including 186 children.

By this week, Russian police said they had freed all hostages in Nalchik, though reports of sporadic gunfights and arrests continued. Schools remained closed.

The local Jewish community was unharmed in the fighting, but international Jewish groups are keeping a watchful eye on the area and how events impact the Jewish community.

Galina, who immigrated to the United States three years ago with her husband and two children, feared for two sisters who remain in Nalchik with their families. She first called her younger sister Yana, but there was no response.

A call to the youngest sister, Milana, also brought no response. The local government had cut all telephone lines to isolate the gunmen.

“I worried: What could happen to my sisters and their kids? I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them,” Galina, 32, said in heavily accented English.

Meanwhile, three flights below Galina’s apartment, her sister-in-law Nadezhda was relaxing with her family when her teenage brother, Yakov, burst through the door and told her the news.

Nadezhda no longer has immediate family among Nalchik’s 2,500 Jews; they’ve all emigrated. But she does have aunts, uncles and cousins there.

“I was born there, raised there and love Nalchik, so I feel so much pain for that city,” said Nadezhda, 24. “It’s so beautiful, and I don’t want the same story that happened to Chechnya to happen to Nalchik.”

That this family would be gloomy about the prospects for Nalchik — the capital of Kabardino-Bakaria, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya — isn’t surprising: The Caucasus is one of the most volatile corners of the globe.

Conflict after conflict has rocked the region since the Soviet Union disintegrated: two wars in separatist Chechnya; wars in independent Georgia with its breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions; fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh; interethnic violence in parts of North Ossetia; and separatist violence in Dagestan.

Chechen rebel Shamil Basayev — Russia’s most wanted man — reportedly has threatened to inflame the entire region as long as Chechnya remains Russian territory.

Basayev claimed responsibility for the Beslan hostage crisis last year. This week, the media reported his claim of responsibility for Nalchik.

There are some Ashkenazi Jews in Nalchik today, but the community primarily is Mountain Jewish — religiously conservative and traders by tradition. Spread across independent Azerbaijan and the highland republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, the Mountain Jews are believed to have arrived from Persia in the 5th century C.E.

The Jewish communities sprinkled throughout the region rarely have been targeted as Jews, save for a rash of kidnappings-for-ransom in Chechnya. But the warfare and general instability have sent Jews on the move.

Several thousand Jews fled Abkhazia, and hundreds fled South Ossetia. In 1996, the Jewish Agency for Israel airlifted several hundred Jews out of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides welfare services to more than 1,000 clients in Nalchik, said it had been in touch with Nalchik Jewish leaders after the recent unrest.

Jewish leaders “have not indicated that their community is in distress,” JDC spokesman Joshua Berkman wrote in a short statement. “They know that JDC is ready to provide the Jewish community of Nalchik with whatever help it might need should circumstances change.”

Many Jews live in their own affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Nalchik, with large homes built from the profits of their import-export businesses.

Indeed, that wealth — and the prospect of losing it — may be one reason many Jews stay put: They worry about selling their homes for peanuts.

At the time of the crisis, some 300 Jews were at Yom Kippur services in a synagogue led by the city’s chief rabbi, Levi Shabayev, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary and Nalchik native.

The Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities quickly sent “rabbinical reinforcements” — two yeshiva students from Moscow — to pitch in, FJC Executive Director Avraham Berkowitz said.

“In times of crisis, people turn to the synagogue more,” Berkowitz said. “To abandon them would be the worst option. It only makes sense to fortify the community.”

Meanwhile, the federation is keeping tabs on the situation, he said.

“If any emergency needs develop, we’re ready to help and rearrange our priorities,” he told JTA by telephone from Moscow. “But they’re not sitting on their suitcases.”

But some worry that it could get worse before it gets better.

“Nalchik is an area where Jews have not had a lot of problems, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become a target,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

“As a Jewish community, we have much experience dealing with these sorts of issues. That’s why we’re going to continue to monitor the situation to determine what needs to be done to provide the maximum amount of protection,” he said.

After an entire day with no word on the fate of her sisters, Galina’s family grapevine finally produced some results: A cousin in Israel finally got through to the sisters in Nalchik, and then called Galina’s parents in Potsdam, Germany — where they’ve resettled with Galina’s three other siblings — who then called Galina to let her know that her sisters and their families were fine.

Russia to Israel to Germany to Brooklyn — a typical tale of Jews from the Former Soviet Union.

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