Russians to recruit Orthodox rabbis

MOSCOW — Leaders of a new Orthodox rabbinical group are hoping to ensure an influx of Orthodox rabbis to Russia.

The group, the Federation of the Orthodox Jews of Russia, formed at a three-day congress held recently at a Moscow synagogue, hopes that increasing Jewish knowledge and lifestyle among Russia's Jews will help them entice Israeli Orthodox rabbis, hit by the economic crisis at home, to come to Russia.

The organization adds to the already fractious mix of Jewish organizations in Russia today.

Reform Jews "and the Chabad are making great strides" in Russia, said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's chief rabbi and one of the group's leaders, but the non-Chassidic Orthodox movement "is left behind."

Of the few dozen rabbis living and working in Russia today, approximately three-quarters are believed to be representatives of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch organization, which operates through the umbrella Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

While most of the Reform congregations have learned to live without permanent rabbinical guidance — there are only two ordained Reform rabbis in the Russian Federation — the movement's Russian arm, the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia, is credited with creating a viable network serving Reform Jews in some 30 Russian cities.

Goldschmidt and his supporters — who include a few dozen, mostly local-born Orthodox rabbis, among them Adolph Shayevich, one of Russia's two chief rabbis — believe this is a good time to reach out to the largely assimilated Russian Jews with the message of traditional Jewish values.

Why today? The situation in Israel is the key, Goldschmidt explains.

"Because of a dire economic crisis in Israel, many Orthodox Jews who had long been relying on state support cannot find that support in Israel anymore," he said.

"One of our goals has always been to find qualified people who could come and work" in Russia as rabbis, says the Swiss-born Goldschmidt, who has lived in Russia for nearly 15 years.

He says the Israeli crisis could turn into a blessing for Russian Jews.

"There are now hundreds of people, some 70 to 80 percent" of Israeli rabbinical students, "who are desperately looking for jobs," he said.

Goldschmidt predicts an "exodus" of rabbinical graduates to countries with large Jewish communities, and he hopes to attract some of them to Russia.

The creation of the new rabbinical organization also is a result of an ongoing communal split between leaders representing Chabad Lubavitch Chassidim and the non-Chassidic Orthodox leadership. The success of Chabad — a fervently Orthodox group that has become synonymous with mainstream traditional Judaism in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union — is widely attributed to the movement's funding and its ability to enlist dozens of young and energetic rabbis to work in Russian provinces where other groups have failed to establish a permanent rabbinical presence.

If it is successful in attracting new rabbis from Israel and elsewhere, the new group will break this pattern, Goldschmidt hopes.

"If in the past only the Lubavitchers were going off the beaten track, we now expect within three to four years to have more and more rabbis willing to come and work in various places," he said.