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‘Grandfather’ Lends a Helping Hand

BATUMI, Autonomous Republic of Adjara, Georgia — Emil Krupnik and Oksana Vasilkova may not yet live in a Jeffersonian democracy, but politics in their home country has certainly changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One day before the March 28 parliamentary elections here, a reporter from the local radio station paid a visit to the synagogue here, which Krupnik and Vasilkova run as president and director-general of the Jewish Community of Adjara, respectively. The two communal leaders quickly wrote up a statement, which Vasilkova read for broadcast.

“We call on all the members of our community, and not only them, to come out tomorrow and fulfill their civic duty,” she said. “We have seen that the Democratic Revival Union’s actions have never departed from its rhetoric, and we have every reason to believe that this will continue to be the case.”

The Democratic Revival Union is the party of Aslan Abashidze, better-known to most here as “Babu” — Georgian for grandfather. The idiosyncratic leader of this little corner of Georgia is locked in a power struggle with the country’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili. Not everyone in the region supports Abashidze willingly, while those who don’t tend to keep quiet about it. Krupnik’s support seems genuine, but there is an element of pragmatism as well. (Saakashvili’s National Movement-Democratic Party ended up winning, with more than 76% of the national vote, including 55% in Batumi.)

Krupnik was not always supportive of his government. Back in the 1970s, he and his sister Riva, spurred on by an interest in their Jewish heritage, became active in underground movements supporting refuseniks and seeking the right for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. They soon volunteered for a series of potentially dangerous missions, smuggling visa applications from Georgia to the Israeli embassy in Moscow.

“We were always afraid of the KGB,” he said. “In Georgia, Jews breathed a little easier than elsewhere in the USSR, but there was still one [Communist] Party, one KGB, one monolith. We were lucky. God looked out for us.”

Toward the end of the 1980s, Krupnik and his sister, who had moved to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, began working with a group of Jews in the Georgian Academy of Sciences to put together the Association of Georgian-Jewish Interaction, which would become an umbrella for the country’s organized Jewish community. In Batumi, Krupnik began organizing holiday celebrations, at first renting rooms around the city and later signing a deal with the port to use the flashy hall designated for receiving foreign sailors.

But that wasn’t enough. Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, this Black Sea port, dominated by ornate, if crumbling, czarist-era buildings and palm-lined boulevards, was home to two synagogues. One, which had belonged to the Sephardic community of ethnically Georgian Jews, fell into such disrepair that it had to be sealed off. The other, built in 1904 by Ashkenazic Jewish merchants from Russia, was being used by the army as a sports club. Krupnik went from ministry to ministry asking for it to be returned, the way other synagogues around the former Soviet Union were being returned. All he ever got was a sympathetic smile and a pat on the back.

But in 1991, shortly after Abashidze was elected to lead Adjara, he called Krupnik and the leaders of other minority ethnic groups into a meeting and asked them what they needed.

Krupnik recalled saying, “It would be nice to get the synagogue back.”

Two months later, he got a telephone call from the Adjaran deputy minister in charge of religious affairs. Krupnik was told to be at the synagogue the next day — the eve of Rosh Hashanah — and to expect Abashidze. Still dubious, Krupnik was waiting outside the former synagogue when Abashidze’s motorcade pulled up. The compact, gray-haired and balding Babu, smiling broadly, climbed out, handed Krupnik a set of keys, shook his hand and drove off.

Seven years later, in 1998, Abashidze again came to visit. Touring the synagogue, he pointed to the asbestos boards that lined the walls.

“He said they contained carcinogens,” Krupnik recalled. “He said I should replace them, because the congregants shouldn’t have to breathe that stuff.”

Again, Krupnik hesitated. With very little money at his disposal, he couldn’t afford to replace the boards. Two weeks later, however, he arrived at the synagogue one morning to find workmen pulling down the boards. Within two months, the entire synagogue had been renovated and a school and soup kitchen built on the grounds.

“Babu did everything,” Krupnik said. “He came to the synagogue every single day during the renovations. And when they gave us the keys to the school they had just built for us, there was soap, toilet paper and hand towels in the bathroom.”

In the meantime, Krupnik has gotten support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to fund the soup kitchen, from The Jewish Agency for Israel to fund the school, which has some 40 pupils, and from Chabad-Lubavitch to run the synagogue, which has attracted about 500 congregants. One local man — “the one who reads Hebrew best, although I’m not sure how well he understands it,” Krupnik said — serves as cantor. A rabbi comes for the major holidays, either from Tbilisi or from the United States.

It is a far cry from the community that once produced at least moderately famous Jewish names. Shmeriag Sosonkin, a rabbi in Batumi during the 1920s, left for Palestine after the Bolsheviks confiscated the synagogue, and took on students including, among others, the talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz, who recently visited his mentor’s hometown. Sosonkin’s students in Palestine also included Mikhail Rozenberg, an activist in the Zionist underground, and Isaiah Kazenets, a decorated hero of the USSR who led the anti-Nazi resistance movement in occupied Minsk.

The Jewish community in Batumi, meanwhile, is dwindling. The current count represents at best one-third of the number of Jews who lived in this city of 140,000 before the end of the Soviet Union, according to Vasilkova. Most of those left are elderly. Younger Jews have joined the mass exodus of Georgians; estimates are that 1 million to 2 million people have left since 1991. While most end up in Moscow, many local Jews have moved to Israel, America or Germany.

Particularly hard-hit has been the Sephardic community, which has lived in the region for 2,600 years. Sephardim in Batumi now count only 12 to 15 families, Krupnik said.

“We teach the children Hebrew and encourage them to visit Israel because we believe that it is important for them to know about their roots,” Krupnik said. “But when they compare what their lives could be like in Israel to what they are like here, of course they want to stay [in Israel]. I suppose the most we can hope for is that they will also remember that part of their roots is in Batumi.”

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