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Shaken by Ukraine’s turmoil, Kiev Jews form self-defense force

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) — At an empty Chabad school near the banks of the Dnieper River here in Ukraine’s capital city, six uniformed Jews with handguns and bulletproof vests are practicing urban warfare.

Leading the training last week is a brawny man who at irregular intervals barks Hebrew-language commands at the men to test their drilled responses to different scenarios, including “ma’atzor” (firearm malfunction) and “mekhabel” (terrorist).

The men, who belong to Kiev’s newly formed Jewish Self-Defense Force, all have some combat skills from the Israeli or Ukrainian armies or background in martial arts, but they are clearly rusty. Living in a country that had been at peace since World War II, they hadn’t expected to have to use their skills to defend their local Jewish community.

But that changed with the recent turmoil in the country. Amid the months of upheaval, there have been scattered attempts to torch synagogues, as well as assaults on Jews. Two rabbis were stabbed near Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, in January and in March.

Such incidents led to the creation and deployment of the self-defense force around some of Kiev’s Jewish institutions ahead of the country’s May 25 elections.

“We were naive, I guess. We had thought this conflict would not affect the Jewish community, but now we know we are a target,” said Tzvi Arieli, the group’s founder and trainer in techniques he mastered in the Israel Defense Forces. “Honestly, we should have formed this force months ago.”

Arieli and his team are worried that their community has become a pawn in the fight that pro-Russian separatists have waged against the Ukrainian government since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

“The separatists are on a mission to portray the Ukrainians as anti-Semites, and to do that they are targeting the Jewish community,” said Gedaliah, another prominent member of the eight-man Jewish force who requested that only his first name be used. “Failing that, they’d love to illustrate how the Ukrainian government is helpless to protect the country’s Jews and harm its legitimacy.”

But that helplessness is real enough, according to Gedaliah.

“The message we got from meetings with high-level officials is that however much they’d like to protect potential Jewish targets, they are overstretched, understaffed and simply not up to the task,” he said. “They basically told us to take steps to defend ourselves.”

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine who leads the Great Choral Synagogue, gave the green light several weeks ago to the formation of the self-defense unit under Arieli’s command.

The unit, its members say, has the backing of Ukrainian police.

“We have a direct line to police top brass in case any of our members are detained by police,” Arieli said.

The men are licensed to carry their personal handguns for self-defense purposes. They also have five bulletproof vests that Arieli, a soft-spoken former emissary to Kiev of the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement, obtained from donors in Israel. The team also has baseball bats to wield as clubs, but no helmets or proper first-aid kits.

Arieli is working to raise additional funds on Facebook to buy gear for prospective new members.

At the schoolyard, the men practice running for cover as their comrades fire imaginary shots at an abstract enemy, shouting “bam, bam, bam” while pulling the triggers of their empty firearms.

They are all friends in their 20s to 40s, but there is little joking around. They go over the moves again and again, taking care to hug walls as they turn corners with their firearms extended until they secure the entire space.

Staggering under the weight of the 40-pound ceramic vest, Gedaliah shakes his head and says, “This is going to take some getting used to.”