Jews safe in Nalchik crisis, but US relatives worry about future

Jewish groups are keeping a watchful eye on the area and on how the events may impact local Jews.

nalchik russia 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
nalchik russia 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
On the morning of October 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 kilometers away, their sleepy hometown in southern Russia suddenly had become the top story. The network reported 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 held and corpses were shown lying in the streets. Local members of the Jewish community were unharmed in the fighting, but international Jewish groups are keeping a watchful eye on the area and on how the events may impact them. 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, then 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. 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 breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, interethnic violence in parts of North Ossetia and separatist violence in Dagestan. There are some Ashkenazi Jews in Nalchik today, but the community primarily is Mountain Jewish, who are 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 CE. The Jewish communities sprinkled throughout the region rarely have been targeted as Jews, save for a rash of kidnappings-for-ransom in Chechnya. However, the warfare and general instability has sent Jews on the move. Several thousand of them 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 town, said it had been in touch with Nalchik Jewish leaders after the recent unrest. They "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" from Moscow to pitch in, FJC Executive Director Avraham Berkowitz said. "In times of crisis, people turn to the synagogue more," said Berkowitz. "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." However, 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.