Bay Area-trained team challenges anti-Semitism in Russian town

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The Jews of Velikie Luki in northwest Russia awoke to find their community center's windows smashed and their mailboxes stuffed with anti-Semitic leaflets. That was on June 10. Two days later, 43 tombstones were toppled and seriously damaged in their Jewish cemetery. When community leaders contacted local law enforcement officials, there was no response.

"The fact that the vandalism took place on Russia's Independence Day suggests a link to racist and xenophobic nationalism," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal.

So working with the Bay Area Council, Leonid Lvov, the director of the Light Center for Human Rights in St. Petersburg, initiated what he called a "swift response."

The Light Center is now assisting the community in preparing a formal complaint to the district prosecutor's office. Additionally, Lvov is putting together a Russian team of colleagues from the Climate of Trust program and dispatching them to Velikie Luki.

A joint program of the Light Center, the Bay Area Council and the Pacific Northwest regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, the Climate of Trust was an exchange among Jewish and human rights activists, police officers and prosecutors from Russia and Northern California. Its goal was to cultivate a team of law enforcement representatives and city administrators and sensitize them to the effect of ethnic and religious intolerance.

On July 6, the Climate of Trust participants will go to Velikie Luki to confer with the town's mayor and share their experiences with local law enforcement officials and city administration.

They will offer workshops on such topics as extremist organizations in Russia, American experience in hate-crime prevention and combating ethnic and religious intolerance.

"Our objective is to encourage provincial authorities to treat such acts of terrorism seriously, and equip them to effectively counter hate-based violence against Jews and other minorities," said Levermore.

Since the exchange program took place in the past year, this is the first time participants of the program are being dispatched to educate their colleagues about what they learned.

"This is extremely rewarding in that this is what we hoped would be accomplished by the program," said Levermore.

Levermore said another Climate of Trust program is in the works for members of law enforcement and community officials in the town of Ryazan, where a Jewish Sunday school was attacked last September. Funding will come from the U.S. State Department and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Ryazan is in the "Red Belt," meaning it's still rather communist in its leaning, with "fairly strongly nationalistic views," said Levermore. "Because of that, there's kind of a stronger sense of anti-Western, anti-Semitic sentiment and greater resistance to confronting the issue of hate crimes."

Levermore attended a pre-seminar meeting there a few weeks ago, and said that some potential participants expressed skepticism and wondered about the Bay Area Council's ulterior motives. But in the end, she said, they were convinced they could benefit from the program. It will begin in August, with a group of officials from Ryazan coming to San Francisco.

News of the program received some positive press coverage there. At the end of a buffet, "Everybody raised a toast of vodka to the program, and some even suggested that perhaps our team can come back and conduct a mini-course at their local academy on the roots of ethnic and religious intolerance," Levermore said. "There was a real degree of acceptance that met the program in the end."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."