MOSCOW (AP) _ Fire badly damaged a Moscow synagogue this morning, alarming a Jewish community already on edge over the electoral triumph of extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

''We hope it is not arson,'' said Rabbi Berel Lazar. ''But there is a chance.''

Fire investigator Yevgeny Pevzner said it was too soon to tell what caused the fire at the Maryina Roshcha Synagogue, one of only three synagogues in Moscow.

Firefighters battled the pre-dawn blaze at the two-story, wooden synagogue for four hours.

''When I got there, I saw fire gushing out from all sides,'' the rabbi said. ''I couldn't believe it. I thought it was a nightmare and that I would wake up.''

The poverty and general disorder that have followed the 1991 Soviet collapse have been accompanied by a rise in overt anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic slogans and posters have become a common at hard-line demonstrations. Vandals have attacked Moscow's main synagogue several times this year, Jewish graves in St. Petersburg have been desecrated and the newspaper Pravda has accused Jews of ritual murder.

The rabbi said the synagogue has not been the target of previous attacks and had not received any threats.

For many observers, Zhirinovsky is one of the most striking examples of this dark, new mood.

Among other things, Zhirinovsky advocates allowing only blue-eyed, fair- haired Russians to be television newscasters. Zhirinovsky has also said Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism.

Zhirinovsky was kicked out of Bulgaria Wednesday, abruptly ending a foreign tour that featured visits with a German neo-Nazi and an Austrian industrialist who denies the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews during World War II.

There is little official discrimination against Russia's 2.5 million Jews. Since the Soviet collapse, they have reopened synagogues, schools, camps and even a kosher restaurant in Moscow. In addition, most legal obstacles to emigration have been removed.

The Maryina Roshcha Synagogue was built 10 years after the 1917 revolution and was, for many years, one of only two functioning synagogues in Moscow, the rabbi said.