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Russian rabbis meet in Moscow to discuss growing unease amid war, call for peace

Conference statement includes thinly veiled criticism of rabbis who’ve fled Russia due to their open opposition to its invasion of Ukraine

Russian chief rabbi Berel Lazar addresses a gathering of Russian rabbis in Moscow on September 5, 2022. (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)
Russian chief rabbi Berel Lazar addresses a gathering of Russian rabbis in Moscow on September 5, 2022. (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)

Dozens of Russian rabbis met on Monday to discuss the challenges facing them and their communities in the wake of their country’s brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine and as a subtle criticism of former Moscow chief rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who fled the country due to his explicit anti-war views.

The gathering of some 75 rabbis — most of them from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect — was organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, one of the country’s two largest Jewish organizations.

In addition to the general crackdowns on civil society and free speech in Russia since the start of the invasion, the Jewish community in particular has felt under attack in recent months as Russian authorities have sought to shut down the Jewish Agency’s activities in the country.

At the conference, which was held in Moscow, the rabbis issued a resolution calling “for peace and the cessation of the bloodshed.”

“We call on world leaders to do everything in their power to bring peace between nations. Peace is a Divine value and is the foundation for the existence of humanity in the world,” they wrote.

The resolution, however, notably did not mention Ukraine explicitly or assign blame for the war.

Russian rabbis gather in Moscow to discuss challenges facing their communities on September 5, 2022. (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)

The federation’s statement did refer to the conflict as an “invasion,” which amounts to a moderately rebellious move in Russia, where the war is generally referred to euphemistically as a “special military operation.”

Among the 75 rabbis in attendance at the gathering were Chabad’s Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who has issued tepid condemnations of the war, and the federation’s president Rabbi Alexander Boroda, who has repeated Russian government talking points about rising Nazism in Ukraine. Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi also addressed the conference, reading a letter sent by President Isaac Herzog.

Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, some 20,000 Russians have immigrated to Israel — the largest number in some two decades — fleeing an evermore oppressive regime under Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Nearly 200,000 Jews now live in Russia, though roughly three times as many are eligible for Israeli citizenship, having at least one Jewish grandparent.

“Relations between Russia and the rest of the world have rapidly deteriorated since the invasion began in February, resulting in economic uncertainty and, of significant concern to the Jewish community in particular, a sense of fear and isolation not felt in decades,” said a statement from the federation.

At the conference, organizers said, the rabbis “recommit to their pledge to continue leading their communities and not abandoning them during these difficult times.”

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt attends the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, December 4, 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty Images North America/AFP)

This was a thinly veiled reference to Goldschmidt, who is not affiliated with Chabad and who left Russia for Israel with his wife two weeks following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, after first refusing pressure to support the invasion and then openly opposing it.

“We are shocked that some individuals not only believe that rabbis have a duty to jeopardize their communities by engaging in political activities or even to abandon their community altogether as a form of political protest,” the statement said.

“Some voices in the West have demanded that rabbis sacrifice the Jewish community’s safety by publicly attacking the government,” the rabbis added, again, without naming anyone specifically.

In his exile, Goldschmidt has been free to voice criticism of the war and of Putin’s regime. In an interview with the BBC last month, the rabbi refused to pass judgment on those that remained in Russia or did not speak out against the war.

In yet more not-so-subtle criticism of Goldschmidt, Lazar told the conference: “A rabbi should always be with his Jews, even in the most difficult times.”

Asked about the Russian rabbis’ remarks, Goldschmidt refrained from commenting on them directly but responded with his own understated criticism in the form of a blessing ahead of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, later this month.

“I wish all the Chabad rabbis in Russia a blessed new year. May G-d keep them away from harm and evil and may they be as helpful as possible to assist Jews who want to leave Russia,” Goldschmidt told The Times of Israel through a spokesman on Tuesday.

Herzog relayed his support for the Russian Jewish community in a letter read to the forum by Ambassador Ben Zvi.

Herzog praised the rabbis’ “remarkable strength” and devotion to their work during challenging times.

“Your commitment in such times of fear, to your Ukrainian and Russian communities, is especially brave and awe-inspiring,” the president wrote.

Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi. (Foreign Ministry)

Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in a labor camp in the Soviet Union before being allowed to move to Israel in 1986, also sent a message, stressing the importance of the rabbis’ work in Russia.

The Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, extended their well-wishes and support as well.

“We herewith encourage you and inform you of the Torah ruling that every rabbi has a sacred obligation to remain with his flock, and he is forbidden to leave his congregation, G‑d forbid,” Yosef wrote.

The Russian government’s recent moves against the Jewish Agency have evoked memories of the Soviet Union’s own crackdowns on the organization and on Jewish communal life during the Cold War.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that Moscow shuttering the Jewish Agency would be “a grave event” with “consequences” for Russian-Israeli ties, but later appeared to tone down his rhetoric in favor of quiet diplomacy.

Last month, a Moscow court postponed its decision on the Justice Ministry petition to close the agency’s offices, in a move Israel hopes will give it more time to reach an agreement with Moscow and prevent the organization’s closure in Russia.

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