Shotgun threatens Russian shul aided by S.F. group

An attack on a Russian synagogue that was recently opened with the help of a S.F.-based group marred observance of the High Holy Days in Borovichi.

A single shotgun blast pierced a window at the Beth Torah Synagogue last weekend, hours before Yom Kippur services. The building was empty at the time.

The shot apparently was aimed at the congregation's only Torah scroll, which was dedicated at an emotional opening ceremony in August. Many members of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal attended the event.

Pnina Levermore, executive director of BACJRR, has been in contact with Edward Alexeev, the leader of Borovichi's Jewish community, and with Russian Jewish organizations since the incident occurred.

"It seems that from the angle of entry, an attempt was being made to shoot into the Aron Hakodesh" (holy ark), Levermore said Tuesday from her San Francisco office. "Fortunately, they missed, so the ark is undamaged."

Alexeev told Levermore that the police originally considered the incident a rock-throwing, and didn't want to investigate. "But the police chief came in the next morning and said we'd better investigate or that Jewish group from the United States will be all over us," she added.

The ensuing investigation of the trajectory showed the shot came from what was thought to be a deserted office in a building across the street.

However, upon further investigation, the office was found to be a base for Russian ultranationalist groups. Findings included posters for the Russian National Unity Party and the New Bolsheviks on the walls.

Levermore said her group has been working diligently in Borovichi to curb the very popular RNU, whose members she said wear black uniforms with a swastika on the armband.

"Edward said the police have opened up an investigation but haven't found anybody," Levermore said.

"There's a lot of worry there," she added. "There's a fever of panic growing throughout the country, with the events in the south [Chechnya and Dagestan] and in Moscow. Edward said, 'Here we don't have a dark-skinned minority, so people are putting a lot of pressure on the Jews.'"

BACJRR has provided funds for one security guard at the synagogue since a May fire occurred during construction of the building. Another security guard will likely be added in the wake of the shooting.

"Edward said every once in a while windows are broken in the synagogue and some dead cats have been thrown in there," and some dead birds have been hung from the shul's front door, Levermore said. "Very disgusting."

After the shooting, Levermore contacted the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Jewish Congress, convincing representatives to make the six-hour trip to Borovichi to consult with members of its Jewish community.

"They looked at the space [synagogue] and helped out with security," Levermore said. "They set up a better regimen for monitoring and guarding the space."

Alexeev told Levermore that Jews in Borovichi are "very disturbed and concerned about the safety and security of the space, but that they will not be cowed," she said.

He said Yom Kippur services not only continued as scheduled, but that "more people than ever turned out, and they even asked forgiveness for the perpetrator because it was Yom Kippur.." For Sukkot, a sukkah was built outside the synagogue and "the atmosphere was very festive [with] many people taking part," he told Levermore.

During the past two years, Borovichi's small Jewish community has been threatened with violence and subjected to anti-Semitic posters placed across the city of 90,000.

Last year, the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal led an international campaign to help Borovichi Jews after officials reported an increase in neo-Nazi activities.

As a result of the campaign, Borovichi municipal authorities granted space to Jews in the town's central square for the synagogue.

In another incident that took place in the former Soviet Union before Rosh Hashanah, vandals desecrated dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery in Astrakhan, 1,200 miles south of Moscow.

Twenty-eight tombstones were toppled and destroyed and 25 more stones damaged or spray-painted, according to Lev Bolotin, who heads the local Jewish religious community.

"We are concerned and outraged by this outbreak of anti-Semitism," Zinovy Kogan, executive director of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, said in a statement.

This is "a new challenge to the Jewish community of Russia," he added. "We call on politicians across the spectrum and ordinary Russians to show zero tolerance for such acts."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.