Lubavitchers organize to seek lost Russian property

MOSCOW — The Lubavitch movement is planning to ask the Russian government for properties that used to belong to the group.

With this goal in mind, the movement is reorganizing itself to show the government it is far from being a new group in Russia and that its current activities represent the continuation of a two-century-old Lubavitch presence in the country.

Lubavitch representatives working in Russia gathered last month in Moscow to set up a new body, Agudas Chassidei Chabad Russia. The new organization will serve as a Moscow-based umbrella group for all Lubavitch-affiliated institutions now operating in Russia.

It will also seek to demonstrate that the Lubavitch movement, despite its global operations, is working in Russia as a grassroots movement, Lubavitch officials say.

Russian officials do not "like it much when foreigners come and tell them what to do," said Berel Lazar, chairman of the Rabbinical Alliance of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the organization of Lubavitch rabbis working across the former Soviet Union.

"Our message is that we are not foreign in this country; we are local. We are based in the local communities," he added.

After the Russian body is created, Lubavitch officials want to launch a broader organization that would operate throughout the former Soviet Union, where the Lubavitch movement runs dozens of Jewish day schools and Sunday schools.

Most rabbis now working in the former Soviet Union are emissaries of the Lubavitch movement.

While some work in the vast region's largest cities, others serve in far-flung communities, including towns in Siberia and the Caucasus Mountains.

Lazar said the activity is to let the government know that the Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union is thriving and that "all that once belonged to it should be given back."

The list of properties that the movement wants returned includes buildings that once housed Lubavitch facilities and properties associated with the succession of Lubavitch rebbes, the movement's spiritual leaders.

Among those buildings is a house in the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don that once belonged to the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Sholom Ber Schneerson. The house is now used as an apartment building.

But the efforts may be stymied by Russian law, which allows religious groups to reclaim houses of worship that had been confiscated during the Communist era, but says nothing about other kinds of former communal property.

Lubavitch officials also seek the return of archival documents — most importantly, the Schneerson library.

The library, which consists of 12,000 books and manuscripts that had been collected by five generations of Lubavitch rebbes, is now stored in the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library.

The disputed collection was confiscated in the early 1920s by Soviet authorities and transferred to the Lenin Library.

The Lubavitch movement has been battling in the Moscow courts since 1990 for the return of the books.

Last month, a Lubavitch delegation was allowed to see the books. Shalom Levine, head librarian at the Lubavitch worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., was among the movement's officials who visited the library. He later said of the meeting with library officials: "They are not ready to talk seriously. The library is playing cat and mouse with us."