Monday, March 03, 2008

The Kremlin's chief rabbi

MOSCOW - Any rabbi in Israel would be envious of Berl Lazar, chief rabbi Of Russia. From his spacious, wood-paneled office at the top of the Jewish Community Center that is located in the Marina Rocha neighborhood, he holds sway over more than 200 communities that comprise, according to unofficial estimates, more than 1 million Jews. The Kremlin considers him the leader of Russia's Jews and Lazar enjoys President Vladimir Putin's trust. He is likely to receive the same treatment from Putin's successor-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He is backed by billionaire Lev Leviev, who sees the rehabilitation of Jewish religious life in Russia as his life's ambition.

These are good times for Lazar. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia (FEOR), which he heads, celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. After years of harsh struggles among the Jewish organizations in Moscow, FEOR has established its leading status. Fact: Even the president of the rival organization, the Jewish Congress of Russia (KEROOR), Arcadi Gaydamak, came to the anniversary celebration to offer his congratulations.

Only 10 years ago, the international Jewish organizations and the Jewish Agency thought the Jewish community in Russia had reached the end of its road. The best of its sons and daughters had immigrated to Israel or to the United States, and it seemed as though the handful who remained would close shop and leave. According to official data, there are currently 250,000 Jews in Russia, but the leaders of the community and many experts believe the real number of is closer to 1 million, half of whom live in Moscow.

Lazar, 43, came to Moscow from New York 18 years ago as the Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary. Last Wednesday, he oversaw his son's bar mitzvah celebration at the Community Center. The Rolls Royces of the oligarchs who arrived as his guests, surrounded by bodyguards, packed the narrow street. In a city that worships political and financial power, Lazar is considered a significant locus of power.

But should he be envied? It is hard to think of a rabbi who in recent years has been the object of quite so much criticism - a level of vituperation reminiscent of the czarist era. He has been accused of everything: of using economic and political power to get rid of rivals, of forcing Chabad on Russia's secular Jewry, of serving as an "informer" and turning Jews in to the authorities and of whitewashing cases of anti-Semitism to curry favor with the regime. Even within his own movement, Chabad, there were those who said he had not advanced the interests of the religious in order not to damage his good relations with the regime.

Once a quiet life

"I didn't want to be elected chief rabbi," says Lazar in an interview to Haaretz in which he responds for the first time to accusations against him. "The heads of the communities approached me several times, and I said no. Before that, for 10 years I had lived a very quiet and satisfying life here, but they asked again and again and I gave in. I knew that a public figure does not have an easy life, but today I feel very comfortable with myself. It might have been possible to have achieved more, but these are things that could be done."

Why do you think that they are attacking you from so many directions?

"There are people who love success and are trying to blame other people. There are certain possibilities in this community, and we are trying to do the things that need to be done. In this country there is no other way to do this job."

Lazar outright rejects the accusations that he whitewashes incidents of anti-Semitism to help Putin's regime. In the past, a document to this effect was prepared at Nativ but was never published. Lazar's opponents say it was his own lobbying that won him the administration's official recognition as the chief rabbi of Russia instead of Rabbi Adolf Shayevich who had held the position since 1980. Similar accusations were raised several weeks ago after FEOR published figures according to which during the past year there was a drop in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Russia. The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University claims, however, that it is possible there has even been an increase in anti- Semitism.

"We are living here every day, we are working with the courts and the police and we put pressure on the government in every case of anti-Semitism," says Lazar in defense of FEOR's record. "Every community knows it is necessary to inform us immediately of every incident; we have a special hotline and we are the first to know and publish everything. Check into the cases that other organizations report to the world, and you will see that their source is our report. There is anti-Semitism and xenophobia here and this is not good, but to say there is an increase in anti-Semitism is simply incorrect."

Aren't you playing into the hands of the authorities, who are perhaps trying to hush up the problem of anti-Semitism?

"Playing into their hands? Of course. If they deserve credit, they deserve it. And when criticism is deserved, we speak out. There's a carrot and a stick, and we mustn't use only the stick."

They say that Putin makes calculating use of the Jews in order to advance his agenda. Are you convinced his affection for the Jews is authentic?

"I have no doubt. There are reasons for this that have to do with his childhood. Jewish teachers helped him very much and he had Jewish neighbors and friends. I once showed him a picture of the synagogue in St. Petersburg. He told me it couldn't be the right building because he remembers how as a boy he would go in there with a friend and eat the leftover matzas. I explained to him that we had simply renovated the building."

Putin is now saying in talks with Jewish leaders that one of the greatest mistakes of the Soviet leadership was that Jewish community life, as well as contact with world Jewry, were perceived as a threat to the regime. Even those who are among Putin's harshest critics, like former minister Natan Sharansky, believe this.

"I have serious complaints about his behavior," Sharansky said last week, "but I believe that in his attitude towards the Jews he is telling the truth."

Lazar: "Until now there has been good work done with the Russian administration regarding restoring assets and rebuilding community institutions. Now they also need to support the spiritual process and the restoration of the Jewish knowledge that was lost during the years of Communism. Putin understands this - a few months ago, he announced a donation of a month's salary to the establishment of the Jewish Museum."

Perhaps he is doing this only in order to gain points in the international arena?

"He doesn't need points in the United States."

What the Russian people wants, says Lazar, is stability "so a person knows that he can open a business without being afraid that someone is going to take it away from him."

And will Medvedev provide this stability?

"He is a very intelligent and open individual, who cares about Russia's future and the relations with the Jewish community. This can be seen in his visit here in the community, three days before it was announced he was the candidate. All of a sudden, he showed up at the synagogue for two and a half hours. Afterward, when Putin announced he would be the candidate, what they showed on Russian television were the pictures from that visit."

As for rumors spread by nationalist and anti-Semitic circles concerning Medvedev's Jewish roots, he prefers not to respond.

Criticism within Chabad

Not only slander has been Lazar's lot during his years in Russia. He was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as one of the first Chabad emissaries to Russia at the end of the 1980s. His mission was to revive religious life in Moscow and in Russia. During the first years, his large family lived in a small, decaying apartment. His eldest daughter came down with spinal meningitis, and after suitable medical treatment was not found for her in Russia the family went to Finland and from there to Israel, where the child eventually died.

Lazar's devotion to the movement, and the fact that during his years in the country the Chabad rabbis established their nearly exclusive control of established Jewish life, do not render him immune to criticism within the movement. Some of the factions in the Hasidut are not pleased with the nearly total control that Lazar has obtained in Russia, with the backing of Leviev, who is currently the most significant donor to Chabad activity.

An especially fraught issue is the fate of the Chabad Library, a large collection of antique books that belonged to the previous Lubavitcher rebbe and were confiscated by the Communists. Before his death, the Rebbe appointed four personal emissaries to deal with the issue, in order to pressure the Russian authorities, who relate to the library as a national asset and are refusing to hand it over to them. Some Chabad officials say Lazar prefers to see to his personal connections with the Putin government rather than help restore the library. His supporters, however, say that the four emissaries made every possible mistake and succeeded only in increasing the anti-Semitism in Russia through their actions.

Lazar himself is very cautious when he relates to this matter: "The Rebbe sent four rabbis to deal with the matter of the library. This is their mission. When they contact me, I will look into what can possibly be done about the matter. I have never been asked by them to deal with this. This is a matter of a decision by the Chabad center."

But the library is peanuts compared to the emotions that were stirred at the Chabad centers around the world in the wake of the arrest of 13 youngsters, Chabad yeshiva students, in the town of Rostov. The Tomkhei Temimim Yeshiva is one of the few Chabad institutions in Russia that is not under Lazar's control. Four months ago, the police raided the yeshiva a few hours before the start of the Sabbath. Thirteen students, citizens of the United States and Israel, were arrested. They were held under arrest over the Sabbath and afterward, and were then deported from Russia along with the local Chabad rabbi.

At Kfar Chabad in Israel, people accused Lazar of acting as an "informer" and of giving the authorities information to the effect that the students did not have valid visas. Lazar, who usually answers every question with a smile, tenses when he is asked about the affair and firmly refuses to relate to it. At the time he sent a letter to the rabbis of Kfar Chabad in which he refuted the accusations. "It is open season on me everywhere," he wrote. "My blood is being spilled like water in public."

Lazar claimed at the time that the students had been arrested because they had not updated their visas, despite clear instructions to do so.

But Lazar knows that on this issue he has entered sensitive territory. The accusations are similar to those raised against him several years ago. That was when one of his local rivals, the chief rabbi of Moscow on behalf of the Jewish Congress in Russia, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, was arrested upon entering Russia and deported. At the time, too, people accused Lazar of involvement in the affair. Lazar sighs again when these issues are raised during the course of the interview. Such is the price of success in Russia.

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