Ex-Moscow chief rabbi fears return of ‘Iron Curtain’ blocking Jewish emigrants

Pinchas Goldschmidt says Jewish Agency ‘not popular’ with Russian government, which wants Jewish community to remain due to its economic and academic contributions

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt delivers a speech in Paris, France on Oct. 10, 2018. (Conference of European Rabbis via JTA)
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt delivers a speech in Paris, France on Oct. 10, 2018. (Conference of European Rabbis via JTA)

Pinchas Goldschmidt, who until recently served as the chief rabbi of Moscow, has expressed concerns that Russia may move to prevent Jewish citizens from leaving the country, in a return to Cold War-era Soviet policy.

“There is a fear today that the Iron Curtain will close completely, and that one day it will become impossible to leave Russia at all,” the rabbi told Israel’s Channel 12 news in an interview broadcast Thursday.

The Soviet Union had led a policy of separation from the West during the Cold War, known as the Iron Curtain.

During some of the Cold War, and most notably in the late 1960s, it prevented many Soviet Jews from leaving for Israel or the United States, a ban that was later gradually eased.

In the interview, Goldschmidt noted that the Jewish Agency for Israel, the semi-governmental organization that facilitates immigration to the Jewish state, is “not popular with the Russian government.”

Goldschmidt explained that Russia “wants Jews to stay” in the country due to the economic and academic contributions of the community.

Former Moscow chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt (Channel 12 screenshot)

According to Israeli government figures, some 17,000 Russian Jews have immigrated to the Jewish state since February’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Jewish Agency said earlier this month that Russian authorities had made a number of difficult demands of its offices in the country, which would make it difficult for the organization to continue operating.

View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. Photo (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Goldschmidt, who had been Moscow’s chief rabbi since 1993, left the country for Israel with his wife two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, after declining pressure to support the war.

“We left with just one suitcase,” he said in Thursday’s interview.

Despite being formally re-elected as Moscow’s chief rabbi last month, the rabbi decided to end his contract and not to remain with the community, fearing his position on Russia’s invasion would endanger Moscow’s Jews.

“Some in the community expressed sadness, I think some in the community understood,” Goldschmidt told Channel 12, adding that many families followed him to Israel.

As head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Goldschmidt has since established a foundation focused on providing aid to Jewish refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Goldschmidt has had a rocky relationship in the past with Russian authorities.

Born in Switzerland, the Orthodox rabbi was suddenly denied entry into Russia in 2005, then allowed back in weeks later.

Authorities never offered a detailed explanation for the episode but some officials said there had been a “national security issue.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, right, attend a ceremony unveiling the memorial to members of the Jewish resistance in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on June 4, 2019. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/AFP)

Other rabbis in Russia, including the country’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, and his top spokesperson Boruch Gorin, have remained in the country after expressing concerns about the war.

Lazar and Gorin belong to a Chabad-affiliated group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, that has long enjoyed strong ties to President Vladimir Putin. The group gained ascendency over all other Jewish organizations in Russia in the early 2000s, helped by the land and funding it received from the Russian government.

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