In Conversation: Russia's Chief Rabbi On Russia and the Jews Today


In Conversation: Russia's Chief Rabbi On Russia and the Jews Today

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Rabbi Berel Lazar

by Baila Olidort - Moscow, Russia

March 2, 2009

Even by Western standards, Moscow’s Jewish infrastructure is impressive. In the Marina Roscha part of the city, a complex of buildings houses the community's comprehensive social and educational institutions catering to Moscow’s Jewish population.  

The erosion of Jewish life during communism makes it difficult to know just how large the country's Jewish population is, but according to its Chief Rabbi's estimates, there are approximately half a million Jews in this city of 10 million. 

On average, 1000 Jewish people visit the Shaarei Tzedek Chesed Center daily. A magnificent architectural space with state-of-the-art facilities, seniors come here for free medical and dental care, hot meals, recreational activities and educational opportunities. 

The adjacent Chabad Ohr Avner school building is designed for maximum natural light with walls of windows. Inside, children from pre-school through high school enjoy a lively academic setting where Jewish history is taught alongside Russian history, and students participate in a rich offering of extra-curriculars including swimming, drama and choir. 

Nearby, about 1600 people a day--parents and children, teenagers, singles and seniors--come through the doors of the JCC. Known as the Marina Roscha synagogue from Communist times, the seven-story building, renovated and expanded in 2000, is a vibrant hub of Jewish life. Its facilities are in constant, simultaneous use, including the sanctuary, a gym, ampitheater, social halls, classrooms, a computer/internet café and offices. 

There are 160,000 Jewish members at this JCC, and membership is free. Food is plentiful, with kosher meat and dairy restaurants, and an endless schedule of social events. 

On this particular Shabbos, hundreds of Jewish men and women fill the majestic sanctuary. Scores of little children romp on the bima as a bar-mitzvah boy is called up to the Torah--a surrealistic spectacle for the elderly ladies who look out incredulously from the balcony and throw candies at children. 

The transformation is reflected in 425 communities in the Former Soviet Union. From Estonia to Tadjikistan, and in Russia, 160 cities from Khabarovsk in the far east to Leningrad in northwest, Chabad-Lubavitch representatives are hard at work building a new Jewish reality. 

At the helm is 44 year old Rabbi Berel Lazar. A Chabad emissary, father of 12, Lazar arrived in 1990, during the days of perestroika and glasnost. With his American wife Chanie and a baby in tow, Rabbi Lazar, an Italian native who spoke no Russian, embarked on what would prove to be a historic mission with a bold agenda. 

Following recent events during which Chabad rabbis were expelled from Russia, I interviewed Rabbi Lazar for Lubavitch.com. 

This is a vastly different Russia from the one you found when you arrived here in 1990. You came with your wife from a western standard of life in the U.S., and found yourselves in a situation where food was scarce and living conditions were abysmal. 

Things were really difficult here at first. All beginnings usually are, but today, seeing what we now have here, it's hard to imagine what it was like. I think such change is true of a lot of the more difficult places where the Rebbe sent his representatives—things have become dramatically better. 

When I look at the miracle of Jewish life here today, I see the tears and prayers that the Rebbe poured out in his lifetime over the Jews of Russia. 

What has this transformation done for the self-image of the Jews of Moscow? 

Russian Jews always had deep pride, but they kept it to themselves. They were very scared to be openly Jewish. Our first Sukkot here, in 1991, we placed a small ad in a local newspaper for simchat beit hashoeva –a Jewish celebration with dancing in the street. 

The morning after the ad appeared in the paper, every member of the shul berated me. I was crazy, they said. I’d arouse anti-Semitism and cause a pogrom. The idea of religious expression in Russia seemed downright dangerous to them. 

Was that a tactical mistake on your part? 

No. In fact, thousands turned out to this event—our very first. They were all young people of course who didn’t have the same history of fear and oppression as the older generation. 

Obviously, as the older Jews began to see a new reality where we were freely and openly living as Jews without persecution, their whole attitude to their Jewish identity changed as well. An elderly woman recently told me that all her life she kept her head down in the street, but today, she said, “I walk out and keep my head up.” That’s the difference. 

At the same time, however, we just learned last week of the third rabbi that was forced to leave Russia on some technicality related to his visa. This is not your man-on-the-street variety of anti-Semitism. It’s coming from the authorities. 

Yes, but it’s coming from local authorities who are acting irresponsibly in making things difficult for foreign rabbis, because doing that only hurts Russia’s interests. The last thing Russia needs is for the international community to label it as anti-Semitic. And I don’t believe it is anti-Semitism, but I am taking it up on the Federal level. I'm meeting with the Russia's Interreligious Council and I’m confident we'll see an end to this. 

As official chief rabbi, Russia's cooperation with Iran and its general attitude towards Israel must put you in an uncomfortable position-- 

Obviously, I would like Russia to be closer and more empathetic towards Israel. But all things being relative, Russia is much better in this regard than other European governments. 

I believe that the Israeli embassy here said that Russia’s response to the Gaza operation was better than most—I think second to the U.S. in terms of its understanding for Israel’s situation. 

Of course, Russia has many connections to the Arab world, but I think they are trying to keep a fair position in this matter. On the other hand, there is a lot that Israel could do to foster a warmer friendship with Russia. 

Such as? 

Well —the world very often condemns Russia in reaction to terrorist attacks that take place in this country. Take for example what happened in Chechnya. I think Russia would like to see more understanding from Israel at such times. 

You were at the World Economic Forum in Davos recently. Tell me about your experience there. 

I’ve been going to Davos for eight years now. It is an amazing opportunity to meet and talk with leaders in business, politics and religion. And that’s thanks to Mr. Klaus Schwab, the President of the World Economic Forum, who has been inviting religious leaders for past 10 years or so to interact with business people and people in government, to facilitate a bridging of cultures and religions. The setting is really conducive to these kinds of discussions.

The Friday night kabbalat shabbos is an exceptional event. We had 150 people sharing Shabbos dinner, among them Shimon Peres. Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat gives a dvar Torah every year. And then we daven at Shabbos morning minyan. It is remarkable. 

The panel discussion on Gaza was resounding confirmation of the unbridled hatred that Israel contends with. I was especially shocked that even at this distinguished setting, neither Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, nor Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, felt any compunction to disguise their hostility towards Israel. 

Yes, and it was then, at the end of that panel discussion, after Erdogan’s outburst, after he and Moussa threw every accusation at Israel for 40 minutes straight and wouldn’t tolerate Peres’s 20 minute rebuttal, that Peres had a moment of real clarity regarding Gaza. He later said quite plainly that the experience made him recognize that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a serious mistake. 

As you can imagine, as soon as session was over, I was approached by the major media outlets. I was happy to use the opportunity to clarify our position on Israel—the Rebbe’s position against compromising Israel’s borders for empty promises of peace. 

I told CNN and NBC and the others that as far as I’m concerned, Erdogan—who as we know was working before Gaza, presumably to help broker peace in the region—showed his true colors and lost the respect of Israel and the Jewish people.   

You grew up the son of a Chabad emissary in Milan, Italy. What perspective does that give you now, as Chief Rabbi of Russia? 

The most obvious difference of course, is that Italy’s Jewish community has enjoyed uninterrupted continuity through the centuries, whereas in Russia, a long and entrenched Jewish life came to an abrupt halt and was basically destroyed, creating a 70 year vacuum. 

You must realize the depth of the destruction—the entire Jewish infrastructure was destroyed, causing a total disconnect between the Jewish people and Judaism. And we’ve had to rebuild everything literally, from scratch, and to win the trust of Russia’s Jews who were very skeptical of us at first. 

But you know, Italy has a very small Jewish population, and it is yet a very strong one, with its Jews deeply connected to Judaism. That’s something I think about when I consider the remote cities and towns in the FSU where there are smaller numbers of Jews. It proves that it is possible to build and sustain strong Jewish communities even there. 

Today’s Russian Jewish baby boomers were raised not only with no religious education, but specifically within an atheistic and anti religious environment. How does that play out in your day-to-day work with them? 

There is a big generation gap in Russia. The middle generation—those in their 40s and 50s who were raised with atheism are hard to reach. And in fact, if you’ve paid attention when you were here, you might have noticed that this age group was almost missing in the shul. 

Elderly Jews are connected because they remember their grandfathers of pre-communist times, who were observant Jews. The young generation is becoming very involved and is growing up with a real sense of identity. But the middle generation—they are the most alienated. 

When we talk about the loss to Judaism that our people suffered under communism, this is what we are talking about. These are the people the Rebbe cried for. Thank God, we are seeing many children who, through the Jewish education and life experience we are now providing, are bringing their parents back to Judaism. But this age group represents a real challenge. It is difficult to draw them back in. The loss here is real. 

What are your long term goals in your position? 

To do more of the above, to give you more to see next time you come. For a Jewish population the size of Moscow’s, for example, seven shuls in the city are simply not enough. There should be at least 50-60 synagogues here. We are slowly working towards that. We are slowly opening more Chabad centers in the city.  

Is the government cooperating with you as they had at first, in terms of giving you land and buildings? 

Everything takes time, and obtaining land permits here is a long process. But as we outgrow our spaces—and we are, the government will cooperate. We were ridiculed us when we built the JCC in Moscow for its sheer size. Now it fills up beyond capacity. So I’m optimistic. 

Russian Jews of means seem to be extraordinarily generous. That wasn’t so with the first generation of the nouveau riche following the fall of communism. What has changed? 

The idea of sharing did not exist during communism, where the government was supposedly taking care of everyone and everything. So charity giving was completely unfamiliar to them. When they finally had economic freedom and worked hard to make money, they didn’t understand being asked to give—their response was: “We worked hard to make money, let others work hard and do the same.” But when they began to see the change that comes with participation, and the possibilities for a rich communal life, they started giving. 

I think that last year Russian Jews took the lead in philanthropic giving, and showed the world what generous giving really is. 

Most of the Russian billionaires who have funded the Jewish institutions here have lost most of their wealth recently-- 

I must say that despite the difficult economy, they are giving much more than anyone expected they would. What’s more, the lower tiers of givers are picking up the slack. You know that they feel responsible when you see that people who don’t have much are giving double what they gave last year, because they know that the major philanthropists can’t maintain the same level of support. That’s what I’m seeing again and again, and it’s quite a statement. 

It means that the average Russian Jew is grateful for what we’ve achieved, and will reach deeper into his own pockets to keep it going. 

What’s your message to world Jewry? 

Take heart and pay attention, and be responsive, not only to the miracles of Jewish life in Russia, but to the Rebbe’s prophetic vision, and to our responsibility to utilize all the opportunities that we have today as Jewish people. 

As an emissary of the Rebbe to Russia, I feel it is my responsibility to promote his lifelong passions: shleimut ha-aretz—the land of Israel, shelimut ha-am—the people of Israel, and the yiddishkeit and wellbeing of Russian Jewry. 

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