Russias Jewish organizations vie for control of those returning to the fold

moscow | When Chabad’s Berel Lazar talks, a listener can hear more than a hint of an Italian accent — not that far removed from Don Novello’s parody creation, Father Guido Sarducci.

It’s somewhat jarring because the 39-year-old Lazar, a Milan native, is certainly no comic. He’s been the chief rabbi of Russia, albeit disputed, since June 2000.

The father of 10, who sports fashionably tiny eyeglasses and a straggly brown beard, speaks directly, candidly and makes constant eye contact.

“We haven’t yet found the way to reach out to every Jew,” he says with obvious regret. “Maybe we’ve reached 20 percent. Maybe.”

The 1.5 million Jews who immigrated to Israel and the United States had been connected to Jewish life, he says. “What was left were mostly Jews who didn’t know what being Jewish was. [So] we’re dealing with the ABCs of Judaism. Our hope is that the next generation will make a stronger connection.”

A competing Orthodox group, the Russian Jewish Congress, voices the same desire, as does the fledgling progressive movement.

The congress, headed by remnants of the Soviet era, has been bankrolled by exiled billionaire Vladimir Goussinski. He’d been a business rival of philanthropist Lev Leviev, president of Chabad-Lubavitch’s umbrella Federation of Jewish Communities.

The Russian Jewish Congress, whose most visible point may be Moscow’s rebuilt Marina Roscha Synagogue, has claimed its own chief rabbi of Russia, Adolf Shayevitch, since the ’80s.

Lev Krichevsky, the Jewish Telegraph Agency’s bureau chief in Moscow, comments, “We’ll keep calling both rabbis chief rabbi, but it’s clear who the winner is — Lazar.”

At the same time, a Reform group, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, has kept a small contingent here since the early ’90s. It unites 100 congregations in the former Soviet Union, but its coffers are far lighter than Chabad’s.

Not to be aced out, Masorti, the Conservative movement, also sponsors a handful of activities, mainly in Moscow. Lubavitch, whose payroll lists more than 200 rabbis in the former Soviet Union, has taken the influence lead partially because of a political alliance with Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president, who made the ribbon-cutting of Chabad’s $12.5 million Moscow community center into his personal photo-op, “wants to use the Jews to lobby the United States,” declares one local analyst.

But Jews remain divided along religious lines, says Shmuel Kesler, director of the Joint Distribution Committee’s office here. “Children in kippot are at Chabad. But you can see another way — such as the ORT school, where almost nobody wears a kippah. In Moscow you should speak of communities, not community.”

The JDC, he explains, partners with most of them. “We fund almost all the Jewish schools in Moscow — and about 20 percent of the Jewish community center.”

The best news, says Lazar, “is that today they know they don’t have to be afraid of being Jewish.

“But we’re not really trying to bring back people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who grew up under communism. Our aim is for the old, who remember, and kids, who can learn.”

Chabad’s successes are easy to calculate. With the assistance of many millions of dollars from George Rohr of Miami and New York, and Leviev, it coordinates 54 kindergartens, 72 day schools, 12 high schools and five universities in 64 cities — with a total enrollment of 15,000.

The FJC also directs 100 JCCs, including 75 libraries, 55 computer centers, five museums and some sports clubs, klezmer groups and choirs, Jewish theaters, dance groups, adult education classes and special interest clubs.

Those figures enable Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the federation, to decry U.S. critics who perceive Chabad as insular or cultlike. “We’ve been stigmatized by American Jews. We are providing a Jewish environment, not Chassidic programs,” he insists.

Lazar, however, readily admits that part of Chabad’s reputation has been earned because it is “pushy.”

Sometimes “Chabad requires more of Jews — the black hat, the wigs — than Conservative or Reform Judaism,” he says.

“And I did a Mitzvah Mobile in Manhattan. That’s pushy. Chabad has brought Judaism to the streets. That’s pushy. We’re looking for people who ordinarily wouldn’t walk into a synagogue. So we have to be pushy.”


Orphanages, soup kitchens, schools — Chabad in action in Russia