IWPR'S Caucasus Reporting Service: Armenia's Jewish community split

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Subject: IWPR'S Caucasus Reporting Service: Armenia's Jewish community split

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IWPR'S Caucasus Reporting Service: Armenia's Jewish community

RUSSIAN COLONEL IN MURDER TRIAL Yuri Budanov's supporters claim he is
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Boris Shamborov reports from Nalchik
Karachaevo-Cherkessia have severely dented the credibility of the
republic's ruling regime. Yuri Akbashev reports from Nalchik
ARMENIA'S JEWISH SCHISM Financial wrangles and religious disputes have
split Armenia's Jewish community in two. Karine Ter-Saakian reports
from Yerevan
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Armenia's Jewish Schism
Financial wrangles and religious disputes have split Armenia's Jewish
community in two
By Karine Ter-Saakian in Yerevan
Armenia's tiny Jewish community - numbering less than 800 - has split
into two opposing camps whose differences are, apparently,
Each faction accuses the other of squandering international funds and
failing to observe the fundamental teachings of the Torah. And each
claims to be the only official representative of Armenia's Jewry in
the international arena.
But most observers agree that the vendetta is causing untold harm to a
community, which, in any case, is threatened with extinction.
Despite Armenia's exceptional record for ethnic tolerance, more than
3,000 Jews have left the former Soviet republic since 1993 in an
effort to escape grinding poverty and social collapse. Now the
remaining few are considering joining them.
"We aren't leaving because of racial problems," says Milena
Shteinberg, an actress from the Russian Drama Theatre in Yerevan.
"Everyone finds life hard in Armenia today, not just the Jews."
In the meantime, they are forced to choose between two rival
organisations - the Jewish Religious Community of Armenia (JRCA) and
the Jewish Community of Armenia (JCA). And, in making their choice,
they effectively renounce all links with members of the opposite camp.
Founded in 1991, the JRCA, which meets at Yerevan's Sheikh Mordecai
synagogue, is led by Rabbi Hersh-Meir Burstein and Willi Weiner,
chairman of the Menora cultural association. It is funded by the
international Joint Jewish Centre as well as sponsors from the USA and
Israel who contribute a total of around $50,000 per year.
Meanwhile, the JCA gathers in two small rented rooms in downtown
Yerevan under the watchful eye of Rimma Varjapetian. The JCA's
financing comes from Sokhnut and is comparable to the JRCA's annual

However, both organisations argue that they should have complete
control over all funds donated by international sponsors.
The JCA claims the JRCA spends unnecessary amounts on trips abroad and
lavish celebrations. And the JRCA recently accused its rival of
compromising its religious integrity by accepting a $20,000 donation
from the Harvey Mission, a Jewish-Christian sect in America.
Varjapetian promptly published an article in the local press in which
she denied any links with the sect, adding, "But, of course, no real
Jew, however independent or modern in their outlook, is going to argue
with a Rabbi."
Unsurprisingly, both organisations claim to be the last bastion of the
Jewish faith in Armenia. Willi Weiner, of the JRCA, said the group put
special emphasis on the celebration of religious feasts "since this is
the only way to preserve our historical legacy both for ourselves and
for our children".
Weiner lived in Israel for three years before returning to Armenia.
"Life is hard everywhere but here I have friends and a community. I
simply don't have the right to abandon them," he said.
Rabbi Burstein describes a recent trip to Washington as a "minor
victory" for the JRCA. It marked the first time that any Armenian
Jewish group had been independently represented at the International
Jewish Communities summit.
He believes that this is because the organisation has succeeded in
preserving Jewish traditions over the past century. "We observe the
fundamental teaching of the Torah," he said. "Don't do to others what
you would not wish others to do to you".
Burstein said he regretted the schism between the two rival
organisations, commenting, "Our peoples have suffered a great deal in
the 20th century and we should be together in these troubled times."
But he considers that the JCA has no right to celebrate holidays or
carry out charity work in the name of Armenian Jews. "Varjapetian is a
member of the Israeli immigration service," he says, "and simply has
no authority to represent our Jewish community on an international
The JCA leader, on the other hand, argues, "Our organisation is a
movement aimed at preserving Jewish culture, traditions, rituals and
the Jewish way of life. Rabbi Burstein is only concerned about his
standing with Orthodox Jews abroad."
Varjapetian dismisses claims that the JCA's membership criteria are
less discriminating than the JRCA's, adding that "anyone with a drop
of Jewish blood in their veins has a right to call themselves Jewish".
"The Rabbi is preaching isolationism," she commented. "That might be
fine for Israel but, in Armenia, we need more tolerance. We need to
admit that it's impossible to observe all the laws of the Torah in
this country."
But Varjapetian agrees with the Rabbi on one issue: "We should help
one another to survive in these hard times rather than remaining at
loggerheads," she said. And yet neither side has made any steps
towards reconciliation.
Razmik Davoyan, advisor to President Robert Kocharian on the problems
of racial minorities, is optimistic. "Sooner or later the communities
will unite. It's just a matter of time," he says. But time is running
out for the few remaining Jews in Armenia.
Karine Ter-Saakian is a regular IWPR contributor
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IWPR's Caucasus Reporting Service provides the regional and
international community with unique insiders' perspective on the
Caucasus. Using our network of local journalists, the service
publishes objective news and analysis from across the region on a
weekly basis.
The service forms part of IWPR's Caucasus Project based in Tbilisi and
London which supports local media development while encouraging better
local and international understanding of the region.
IWPR's Caucasus Reporting Service is supported by the UK National
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For further details on this project and other information services and
media programmes, visit IWPR's Website: <www.iwpr.net>.
Editor-in-chief: Anthony Borden. Managing Editor: Yigal Chazan;
Assistant Editor: Alan Davis. Commissioning Editors: Giorgi Topouria
in Tbilisi, Shahin Rzayev in Baku, Mark Grigorian in Yerevan, Michael
Randall and Saule Mukhametrakhimova in London. Editorial Assistance:
Felix Corley, Heather Milner and Mirna Jancic. To comment on this
service, contact IWPR's Programme Director: Alan Davis alan@iwpr.net
The Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) is a London-based
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democratic change.
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The opinions expressed in IWPR's Caucasus Reporting Service are those
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Copyright (c) IWPR 2000

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