MOSCOW — When Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and his wife Channa arrived in Moscow 30 years ago, one of their first projects was handing out Israeli-made matzah to hundreds of hungry Jews before the Passover holiday.
To Lazar, who collected an address or phone number from each recipient along with his nominal payment, it was an opportunity to feed people, spiritually and physically.
In the 1990s, Jewish identity was still largely in a state of hibernation after being put on ice for generations by the Communist government. Soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, those whose identity had remained intact quickly fled to Israel.
But for the Italian-born Chabad rabbi, this newly collected list of Jews would become the springboard — first through the distribution of a newsletter, and then, as things gained momentum, through a host of other initiatives — from which he would help regrow Russia’s Jewish community.
Hosting a handful of journalists in his Moscow apartment for the Friday night Sabbath meal, Lazar leans back in his chair, singing Sabbath songs and doting on his guests as Channa and a few of their 14 children — most of whom are grown and out of the house — put out a decadent spread. He listens attentively as his visitors share words of Torah and, switching fluidly between English and Hebrew, tells stories of his years here, occasionally dropping a name with genuine pride.
The rabbi has earned his moment of satisfaction. Over the last decades, more than 200 active communities have sprung up across Russia, most of them acting under the auspices of Lazar and the Chabad movement. Moscow has an estimated 250,000 Jews, and is home to numerous schools, universities, and rabbinical colleges.
There is a thriving community center with three separate kosher eateries inside, and dozens, if not hundreds, of community institutions. Half a million Russians across the country identify as Jews and participate — at least occasionally — in the highly-organized grassroots movement.
But his tenure hasn’t been all a bed of roses, and has even generated its share of controversy.
In 2000, Lazar split off from the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing the country’s Jews, and assumed the title of chief rabbi after extensive urging from prominent Chabad higher-ups. The title is contested by Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, who is still considered Russia’s chief rabbi by the Congress.
The umbrella group was openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies on the war in Chechnya and alleged human rights abuses — something Lazar says is beyond their purview.
“Challenging the government is not the Jewish way, and [they] put the Jewish community in harm’s way,” Lazar later told JTA in an interview, noting that the chief rabbi should be apolitical, not a government critic. “I wanted to have nothing to do with this.”
Lazar’s close ties with Putin have helped him achieve unprecedented growth in the post-Soviet era, and the rabbi has no intention of slowing down, though critics of Putin would argue that the ends don’t justify the means.
Lazar officiates regularly at Kremlin-sponsored events, gave Putin a tour of the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2012, and appeared alongside the Russian president when he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on January 29 at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
Despite the close relationship, foreign-born Chabad emissaries are still occasionally deported on fabricated charges– something Lazar describes as a “mistake” on the government’s part, but not unusual among less-mainstream religions in the country.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Lazar sat down with The Times of Israel to talk about his political balancing act, the status of Russian Jewry, as well as where he sees it going. The following is an edited transcript.
What was the situation like when you first got here?
I came here the first time as a student — a few times, actually, in the late 80s — and I moved here in 1990 with my wife. The truth is at that time I felt I was working in Grand Central Station — people were just coming, learning Hebrew, preparing themselves to move to Israel. Many of them wanted to have a bris [circumcision] before they went to Israel, many of them wanted to have a Jewish wedding, they wanted to learn Hebrew. So we were really helping people — it felt like we were working for the Jewish Agency — really preparing people to go to Israel. And it felt like this place was going to empty out, there would be nobody left.
We started building this building [the community center] after our synagogue was burned down at the end of 1993, and people thought we were completely crazy. “Why are you building in Russia?” And not only did people think we were crazy, but we were being attacked — mainly by the Israeli government. Once [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Arik Sharon called me for an urgent meeting, and for like an hour I was sitting in his office and he was really giving it to me over the head: “What are you doing, building schools? You’re stopping aliyah. Because of you we’re not going to get a million more Jews to come to Israel.”
This was at the end of the big aliyah, and people felt that there was nothing left here to do, really there’s nobody left. So what we did was actually continue building, even though everybody was against us.
We told them that the only way people are going to make aliya is if they first realize that they’re Jewish. Most Jews here were completely unaffiliated, and we had to do something to awaken their interest. So by doing different things — for example, one of the big things we did to attract people was we put up huge signs all over the city, “Matzah from Israel,” we were bringing in containers of matzah and giving them out for a very symbolic sum. In those days it was also after an economic crash and people were very poor, so we were practically giving them a staple of food, we felt that it was humanitarian aid. It was for very cheap, it connected them with Israel, it connected them with their past — some of them remembered their grandparents who ate matzah or who gave them matzah. So this was sort of a trigger to get addresses of people, and to get them at least to come out of the closet, come get the matzah, and at least leave their phone number.
Slowly, with this list, that’s how we started rebuilding the community. And these people were completely unaffiliated. Today, whatever you see anywhere — in the community center, in a program, in a concert, any event — people will tell you that in the ’90s, they were completely zero connected to Judaism. Eventually the Israeli embassy and Jewish Agency realized that there’s no point in talking about aliyah with people who are disconnected, and they founded a program called “Zehut Yehudit,” or Jewish Identity, and that’s when they came to us and said, “You know, you were right.”
Part of what you did was connect Jewish communities across Russia…
Let me tell you how it actually worked. It was three stages each of 10 years, the third one is almost coming to an end, and the question is what’s going to be the next project.
That was going to be the next question.
We have an idea. The first thing we started with was schools. In 1990 when we came, we said we have to invest in the kids. If the kids get a Jewish education, then there’s a hope for tomorrow.
Second, 10 years later, we decided we have to open up communities. Each city needs a community. Even if it’s a small city where there might not even be a school, but a community they have to have. And that’s when we opened up in every city in Russia practically, a Jewish community. Sometimes it’s a whole building, sometimes it’s just a rented space. We send people out to the cities who are looking out for Jews. And then we find the one who’s most interested, and we say, “Gather around you a group of people, elect a president of the community, and start working. We’re going to fund your activities.” And that’s when we reached 200 communities, and then we felt at least that any Jew anywhere can connect — if he wants, now he has where to turn to.
Step three is the youth. Getting young boys and girls excited, interested, active, leadership positions, and today we have over 8,000 students in Russia who are active — really active — in their Jewish life. Whether it’s learning, volunteer work, leadership, different programs, different activities.
Step four, I would say, is the technological revolution in Russia. Really trying to give all this through technology. Not just by building schools, community centers, and synagogues — it’s about giving education and information to every person wherever he might be. If you have a child in the middle of Siberia, alone in the city, maybe the only Jewish child, we want to reach him and give him the opportunity to get a full Jewish education via the internet. Or a small community that might have a Sunday school, maybe we can’t sent a rabbi there, but we can use technology to send content and they can feel like they’re part of the big system of Jewish schools.
What are some of the challenges you face as you begin your fourth phase of building?
Russia is a country that has very little stability. You really don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, how the political situation is going to go or how economic stability is going to be here. I would say that one of the big challenges is getting people to understand that as long as we have a window of opportunity, we have to invest as much as we can. I think that not only is Russia going to survive — whether it’s today’s sanctions or any other issues — it’s going to be a very strong player in the world arena. That’s what I believe – that the future is here. But I’m surely not the one who’s going to convince people to make the long-term plans to stay in Russia. And many people here have their doubts. So this is the big challenge. When you’re talking to people about investing, whether it’s building a kindergarten, or a community center, whether it’s really seeing the future of their children and their grandchildren here in Russia, whether it’s worth investing here long term, not just short term.
I believe that’s the way to do it. I believed from day one. When we built this building everyone thought that we were completely crazy. Everyone said it was going to be this big elephant, it was going to be completely empty. Today, we are upset that we didn’t build bigger. We wish we did.
So then how do you feel about aliyah?
I’m surely for it, that’s number one. I do believe that any Jew who moves to Israel, it’s a big success for us. We can make a check mark and say, “Thank God, one more Jew made it to Israel.” But I do warn people that aliyah is not only a physical step, it has to be a spiritual step also. I believe that if somebody goes to Israel he has to be sure that he’s not going to be less of a Jew in Israel than he was in Russia. He has to understand that there’s an opportunity for him to be more involved in Jewish life there.
Sadly, for some people it could turn the other way. Because when they are in the Diaspora they feel a responsibility, they go to synagogue, they are part of a community, they are active. And then they come to Israel and it’s all taken for granted and other people are doing it, and they’re not needed. So some people actually feel after they make aliyah that they lost their sense of importance.
Last week, Russian authorities deported Rabbi Yosef Marozov, a US-born Chabad emissary, for engaging in “extremist behavior.” Last year, they deported Rabbi Ari Edelkopf for being a national security threat. The government has deported emissaries before, but now the language seems particularly scathing. You enjoy warm ties with the government, and specifically President Putin. How do you reconcile these two things?
First of all, I don’t believe, and I’m sure that there was no extremist activity by any of the rabbis who were sent out of the country. I do believe that it has a lot to do with the way Russia sees foreigners, and the way they look today at Americans, and people who come from the outside and do certain kinds of work. If a person is a foreigner, and has an American passport, for example, they do look at him with suspicion, like, “What is he doing here? How come he moved from America to Russia, is the State Department behind him?”
There’s a lot of worry about these non-governmental organizations, non-profit organizations, especially if they’re supported by foreign sources. So right away, these people are looked at with suspicion. You just need one local official, especially if they’re part of the secret services, to say, “Listen, this person is doing something wrong, here’s a way to send a message that we don’t need foreigners, we don’t like foreigners, let Russia live its own life. We don’t need their products, we don’t need their Coca Cola. Because that’s the way they’re acting against us, so we’re going to show it to them back.”
So in a way, it’s tit for tat for the way they feel the Western world is treating them.
We spoke about it with the president. There have been cases in which we succeeded in revoking decisions. And just to give an example, in [Marozov’s] case, he was told that he has to leave the city, he wasn’t told that he has to leave the country. But he said, “If I’m going to leave the city, I’m going to leave the country.” It was mainly his decision. But there was a local issue there, which I don’t know what it is, and when we asked them what’s the issue, they tell us, “Listen, we work the same way the FBI works, and the CIA, and the Mossad. They don’t release all the information, so we’re not going to release all the information.” When they tell us that, there’s really no way for us to have any clue what’s going on. We do believe that there’s a lot of misunderstanding in this issue, a lot of misinformation that they have.
But you have built up a lot of trust with the government. Do you see this continuing to be an issue, or might you use your influence to change the situation?
This issue hasn’t hurt our relationship with the government – not at all. Do I think that this might continue? I really hope not. First of all, today we have very few American rabbis left, most of them sadly were already sent away. There hasn’t been the same approach towards rabbis with Israeli citizenship, so that’s a good sign, and in general Russia and Israel have had a very good relationship in the past few years which is getting better and stronger. Can I be assured that no other rabbis will ever be sent away? I doubt it. I’m not sure. I hope.
But I don’t see this as the trend, or representing the relationship. It’s like two business partners who deal with everything together, and there’s a certain issue they don’t agree on. And even if there’s a strong disagreement there, it doesn’t hurt their partnership in the business.
So I do feel that the government appreciates and recognizes the work of the Jewish community, but on this issue we completely disagree. We feel that this is, I would even say, a mistake on their part, and they feel they have the right to make such decisions. We say, “If you have an issue, come to us. Let us figure out how to work it out. Tell us what’s the problem. What’s this language of extremism and everything, which is just absurd.” But they disagree with us, and we disagree with them, and I’d say that we are at odds on this issue, but it’s not hurting the general attitude.