Russian chief rabbi says EU sanctions won’t harm etrog availability
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Russian chief rabbi says EU sanctions won’t harm etrog availability

Berel Lazar says exemption will permit continued export of Italian citrus fruit prized by members of Chabad community

Illustrative: Etrogs for sale at the 'four-species' market in Jerusalem on October 13, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
Illustrative: Etrogs for sale at the 'four-species' market in Jerusalem on October 13, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

The Italian government said that the export of Italy-grown etrog fruits to Russia will not be affected by sanctions imposed by the European Union against Moscow, according Russia’s chief rabbi.

The agreement to exempt the export of the citrus fruit, which Jewish communities use during a religious ritual during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, from any sanctions was reached last year and applies also to the June extension of those sanctions, Rabbi Berel Lazar told JTA based on statements from a local government in Italy.

Speaking to JTA from the region of Calabria in southern Italy on Friday, Lazar said: “The local government here said that, because this is a religious product, they are going to make sure no sanctions are going to be applied on the etrogim.” He added the etrogim are imported by Russia as a religious article, exempt from taxation.

Lazar was born in Milan to a Chabad rabbi, Moshe Lazar, who for the past 50 years has been responsible for supervising the export of etrogs in Calabria to make sure the fruit, which are easily bruised and rendered nonkosher, meet the highest standards. Berel Lazar traveled to Calabria to help his father, who is 83, with the harvest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar at the Jewish Museum in Moscow, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar at the Jewish Museum in Moscow, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Followers of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement share a strong preference for the etrogs grown in Calabria, where tens of thousands are picked annually for export in orchards owned by approximately 100 farmers. Etrogs also are grown in Israel and Morocco.

Chabad communities are major engines of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union and especially in Russia. The European Union in June extended a list of sanctions on Russia, including on exports and imports, in reaction to Russia’s annexation in 2014 of Crimea, an area that is internationally recognized as belonging to Ukraine.

The prospect of sanctions is not the only challenge facing the etrog industry in Calabria. An unexpected frost this winter severely damaged the sensitive etrog trees, destroying approximately 90 percent of the crop, Moshe Lazar told JTA. The shortage means that, this year, fruit that was deemed unfit for export will be picked and exported as long as it is kosher, Moshe Lazar said. Even so, he added, the frost means “there won’t be enough etrogim to go around this Sukkot.” This applies to Russia, too, said Berel Lazar.

The shortage has hiked up prices, with a prime Calabria etrog going for approximately $500, according to Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Odessa, Ukraine. “We’re worried that we may not have a Calabria etrog and we’re pulling all possible strings to get at least one,” Wolff said. In previous years, his community was able to purchase five Calabria etrogim ahead of the holiday.

“We decided to set up a small fund for buying that Calabria etrog, no matter the price,” he said.

Immediately after Sukkot, the prices of Calabria etrogim drop to about $1 a pound, Berel Lazar noted. The local population uses the fruit to make jam.

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