Bay Area Council wins 2 grants to promote tolerance

The Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, which has quietly fought for human rights in the former Soviet Union, has been enlisted in the U.S. war on terrorism.

The S.F.-based agency was recently awarded a pair of federal grants totaling $701,000 for programs that use community dialogue as a weapon against hate crimes and religious extremism.

A two-year, $318,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development will be poured into the Bay Area Council's Climate of Trust program. The organization has established Regional Tolerance Councils in three of Russia's seven federal districts made up of Jews, other ethnic and religious minorities, police officials, city administrators and educators.

The powwows offer minorities a chance to express their grievances to government officials and both sides to cooperate in combating extremism, according to Pnina Levermore, director of the Bay Area Council.

The agency has already helped to found a tolerance council in the city of Ryazan in the nation's central district and Kazan in the Volga district, and aims to start up a St. Petersburg council in Russia's northwest with the grant money.

"They talk about the composition of the populations of their regions and they discuss the various complaints that different ethnic groups have, the various kinds of threats and challenges — the desecration of their centers, profiling by cops on the street, inflammatory articles in the paper and so on," said Levermore of the councils' content.

"Of course the Jewish community is represented, but also the Armenian diaspora, the Georgian diaspora, Protestants and Muslims along with the Russian Orthodox."

While the U.S. State Department "has been supporting our Climate of Trust work" for the past few years, she said, the new USAID funding will take the campaign to a higher level.

"It is associated with concern over stability in Russia in general. It is phenomenally important to amplify the voices of moderation" — especially among the general population.

In addition to the $318,000 grant received in June, Levermore announced Monday her organization received a second, $383,000, grant from USAID.

With the money from the second grant, the council will work to promote ethnic and religious tolerance in Kazan and Tajikistan in Central Asia. Acting as a mini-grant provider and with the help of the American Jewish World Service, the organization will fund tolerance programs such as "teachers' courses, high school courses, textbooks, diversity celebrations, festivals, drawing competitions and essay competitions," Levermore said.

This effort addresses "the threat of Muslim extremism" in the region.

The Bay Area Council came up with the program in response to the U.S. government's call for proposals for "incorporating values" as a way to "combat hate crimes, encourage mutual respect and address sensitive areas in Muslim populations of Russian and Central Asia to counteract Muslim extremism." Citing the agency's years of experience in the field, "We couldn't not apply," Levermore said.

In addition to bringing together diverse groups in Russia, the council brings groups of police officers from the former Soviet Union to San Francisco to observe how the San Francisco Police Department handles hate crimes. A number have subsequently devised methods of improving hate-crime enforcement in their home regions.

A police colonel in the city of Ryzan devised a course regarding hate crime enforcement that more than 400 police cadets have since taken, she said.

In Kazan, the leaders of the Jewish community worked with Muslims and Russian Orthodox leaders to introduce a course at Kazan University on the societal contributions of Jews, Muslims and Christians. The course is now compulsory for the region's teachers.

The newly funded program, said Levermore, "is a lengthy approach to really trying to act proactively to preempt the voices of Muslim extremism and instead encourage dialogue" among all the groups, "in a non-confrontational way."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.