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Jews, Officials Differ on Relations As Burned Synagogue is Restored

August 28, 2001
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Local officials and Jewish leaders in the Russian city of Ryazan appear to agree that the fire that damaged the city’s only synagogue earlier this month was arson, but not an outburst of anti-Semitism.

But they disagree about the state of ethnic tension in Ryazan, located south of Moscow.

“There is no interethnic tension in our city,” said Nikolai Solovyov, Ryazan’s deputy governor for security issues, adding that he believed the fire was set by vagrants who had slept in the empty synagogue while it was being repaired.

But according to Leonid Reznikov, the local government — while friendly toward the city’s nearly 2,000 Jews — is trying to play down ethnic tensions, especially those fostered by Ryazan’s former mayor, Valery Ryumin.

The arson was one of an increasing number of arsons against synagogues and Jewish schools — nine, according to Alexander Axelrod of the Moscow office of the Anti-Defamation League. There also have been a dozen desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, Axelrod says.

In what seems to be a typical situation in provincial Russian capitals, former mayor Ryumin, who remains an active political figure, is using nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments to boost his popularity.

Some of the local media supported by Ryumin’s grouping are using every opportunity to “raise the Jewish question.”

Last week, a local businessman with Jewish roots was seen naked on the beach by a group of Russian Orthodox teachers and students, leading to an anti-Semitic campaign in the local media.

In a series of articles in a popular local newspaper, the businessman’s Jewish roots were stressed. The man was accused of hating the Russian people, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian soil.

Several days before the synagogue arson, the newspaper published a letter from a reader calling on ethnic Russians to “stop tolerating spits in the face with a slavish submissiveness.”

Nearly a year ago, members of a neo-Nazi group known as Russian National Unity attacked the Ryazan Jewish Sunday school, breaking windows and threatening teachers and pupils.

Local official Solovyov says no one knows RNU’s whereabouts, but they can be seen on Saturdays on the streets of Ryazan, wearing black uniforms adorned with swastikas and distributing newspapers that blame Jews for the misfortunes of the Russian people.

Despite this, not all is doom and gloom for local Jews.

The regional government is on friendly terms with the Jewish community, Reznikov says.

Last week, Reznikov joined nine Russian officials and 17 police officers who flew to San Francisco for a seminar on combating hate crimes.

The weeklong seminar is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the Anti-Defamation League and the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal as part of the Climate of Trust police training program.

The restored synagogue building, which dates from 1903, was returned to Ryazan’s Jewish community last year. It had been slated to open its doors this fall to serve as a Jewish community center.

The Federation of Jewish Communities, which plans to send a rabbi to Ryazan to lead High Holiday services, said it has allocated $25,000 to speed up the damaged building’s repair.

“We will not give in to anti-Semitic pressure,” said Avrohom Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

Meanwhile, the Russian Jewish Congress is working on the political front.

The RJC has issued a statement urging Russian authorities to take stronger action against the increasing number of anti-Jewish arson attempts.

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