Allegations fly between chief rabbis after 13 Chabad students are arrested in southern Russia.
by Walter Ruby
Special To The Jewish Week
Following the recent arrest of 13 visiting students in a Chabad-sponsored yeshiva in the southern Russian city of Rostov, charges flew among various Lubavitch factions.The chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad in Israel accused the chi ef rabbi of Russia of conspiring to close the yeshiva and thereby causing the arrest of the students. And the Russian chief rabbi shot back, charging “slander.”But after a Nov. 8 meeting in Crown Heights attended by both Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief Rabbi of Russia, and Rabbi Yosef Aronov, chairman of Chabad in Israel and head of the yeshiva in Rostov, a strained peace seemed to be holding. A statement specifying that the two will put aside their differences and work together for the reopening of the Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim appeared to have ended the controversy, although perhaps not all of the bad blood.The school was was closed by order of authorities in Rostov after they arrested the yeshiva students on Nov. 1, citing visa and registration issues.The students — most of whom were Americans — were held for two days in filthy and overcrowded conditions in a prison in Rostov, without access to kosher food for the first 24 hours of their imprisonment.They were released after the intervention of high-level diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The yeshiva in Rostov is of special importance to the Chabad movement because it occupies the site where Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, lived during his final years.The controversy over the yeshiva is a potential embarrassment for Rabbi Lazar. For the past seven years he has been the most powerful Jewish leader in Russia and the only one to enjoy a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin. But last month, Rabbi Lazar was not invited to take part in a meeting Putin held with a delegation from the European Jewish Congress that included his archrival, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow. An exchange of angry letters reveals the animosity the incident has engendered between leader of the Russian and Israeli factions of Chabad.In his letter to Rabbi Lazar, written when it became clear the yeshiva was about to be closed, Rabbi Mordecai Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Israel’s main Chabad enclave and a close associate of Aronov, did not assert that Rabbi Lazar was no longer influential enough with the Russian authorities to protect the yeshiva.Rather, Rabbi Ashkenazi claimed that Rabbi Lazar actively encouraged the authorities to close it, presumably because it operated under the aegis of the Israeli Chabad rabbinate, and not under his own Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.After the Ashkenazi letter, which accused Lazar of mesirah (informing on Jews to non-Jewish authorities) became public, Rabbi Lazar fired back with a letter of his own. In it he accused Rabbis Ashkenazi and Aronov of “slander” and lashon hara, stating that the reason for the closing of the yeshiva and arrest of the students was that Aronov “never legally registered the yeshiva’s students. And where they did register, they did it under the name of a straw organization, using faked registration, a severe breach of Russian law.” Rabbi Lazar also claimed that he sought to intervene with Russian authorities on behalf of the arrested students, but was unsuccessful.Informed of the gravity of the situation Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of Chabad in Washington and Mark Levin, executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ (formerly the National Conference on Soviet Jewry), worked the phones late in the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 2, contacting U.S. government officials. The following morning two high-level U.S. Embassy officials flew from Moscow to Rostov and managed to convince local authorities to free the students, who were immediately expelled across the border to Ukraine. According to Levin, “It seems to me that the most significant part of the story is that we were able on short notice to reach out to those in a position to help to free the students and thereby managed to prevent what could have been a tragedy.”At the Nov. 8 meeting of the top leadership of Agudas Chassidei Chabad (the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights), Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of the Executive Committee, said in the official statement that after reviewing the events surrounding the Rostov yeshiva controversy, the committee “became convinced that the insinuations and accusations [by Ashkenazi and Lazar] were erroneous and were a result of misunderstanding and confusion.” Rabbi Shemtov commended both Rabbis Lazar and Aronov “for their efforts to solve the problem of this crisis.” And he added, “We remain optimistic about Rabbi Lazar’s commitment to work with Russian authorities and ensure resumption of the activities of the Rostov Yeshiva.”Privately, however, high-level sources within Chabad acknowledged that it is likely to take months before the Russian authorities give the necessary authorizations to reopen the yeshiva.The sources confirmed that the results of the Executive Committee meeting in Crown Heights amounted to a reassertion of authority by the Chabad leadership in Brooklyn over the movement’s seemingly autonomous and often-combative Russian and Israeli branches.According to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, “Agudath Chassidei Chabad is the ultimate policy authority within the movement and the fact that it was involved helped to mitigate the situation.”