Chabads man in Moscow plays nice with Putin

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

moscow   |   Rabbi Berel Lazar’s mother was eager for grandchildren. So she gave her 25-year-old son an ultimatum: He could return to his beloved Jewish outreach work in Russia if — and only if — he got married.

His yeshiva classmates jokingly said he was already wed, “to the idea of going to Russia,” said Lazar, the son of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Milan, Italy.

A few months after his mother put her foot down in 1989, Lazar wed his American-born wife, Channa, and the couple settled in Moscow, where they have since raised 14 children.

One of the Chabad movement’s first rabbi-emissaries sent to the former Soviet Union, Lazar, 51, would go on to become one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, a major yet controversial force in the dramatic revival of Russian Jewry following decades of communist oppression and mass immigration to Israel, the United States, Germany and elsewhere.

Lazar’s work, his Russia boosterism and his ties to the Kremlin — he is sometimes called “Putin’s rabbi” — has helped Chabad’s Russian branch eclipse all the other Jewish groups vying to reshape the country’s community of 250,000 Jews. Now Lazar heads a vast network comprising hundreds of Jewish institutions — schools, synagogues, community centers and kosher shops — stretching across nine time zones.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with Rabbi Berel Lazar in 2005. photo/wikipedia

“I am amazed at what became of a community that had been stripped of everything, even its books,” Lazar said, referring to Soviet Jewry before the fall of communism, when religious practice was suppressed.

In every country where they work, Chabad emissaries heed their late rebbe’s instructions to “play nice” with the ruling secular powers in order to protect the local Jewish community. In Russia, Lazar has taken this dictum to heart — his critics might say overmuch.

Today, Lazar said, Russia has in Vladimir Putin its “most pro-Jewish leader,” whom he credits with “fighting anti-Semitism more vigorously than any Russian leader before him.” But criticism of Lazar’s partnership with Putin grows as the Russian president makes use of his pro-Jewish credentials to justify controversial policies. Putin has repeatedly cited the alleged anti-Semitism of Ukrainian nationalists in justifying Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukraine-controlled Crimea. In January, Putin inveighed against Ukrainian nationalists — he called them “Banderites,” a reference to the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera — during a speech he delivered on International Holocaust Memorial Day, when he was Lazar’s guest at Moscow’s Jewish museum.

Lazar has also been criticized for his presence at Kremlin events, like the one last year celebrating Russia’s Crimea annexation. (“Like other clerics, my duties include officiating at state events,” Lazar explained in an interview with JTA.)

To Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker and author of a book about Russian Jewish immigration to Israel, the relationship between Putin and Lazar is a “beneficiary symbiosis.” Lazar’s support for Putin, Bronfman said, “is a constant and the basis of his claim to the title of chief rabbi.”

Lazar was Chabad’s chief envoy to Russia before staking claim to the title of chief rabbi in 2000. That’s when he quit the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella group, after the organization’s founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Russia’s long-standing chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, criticized Russia’s war in Chechnya and its alleged human rights abuses — including the alleged targeting, by anti-corruption authorities, of political dissidents.

“Challenging the government is not the Jewish way, and [Gusinsky] put the Jewish community in harm’s way,” said Lazar, noting that the chief rabbi should be apolitical, not a government critic. “I wanted to have nothing to do with this.”

Shayevich, who was named Russia’s chief rabbi in 1993, heads the Keroor religious congress, a body responsible for religious services at affiliated synagogues. Today he and Lazar both claim the title of chief rabbi.

In 2012, Moscow opened a $50 million Jewish museum that is headed by Lazar’s top aide, Rabbi Boruch Gorin.

Putin’s support for the Jewish com­munity, Lazar said, “flows from his respect for religion and warm sentiments” to Judaism, not from political calculation. Russian Jews, Lazar added in reference to Putin’s time in office, “have a duty to use this golden hour and press ahead with community growth.”

Still, Putin was quick to leverage the new Jewish museum for his needs.

In 2013, the space became Putin’s answer to an international legal dispute involving the Schneerson Library. A U.S. federal judge in 2013 ruled in favor of Chabad lawyers in the United States who are seeking the return of the library to Brooklyn, where the Hassidic group is based.

Lazar reluctantly agreed to Putin’s request that the texts be housed in the museum as a form of compromise. The claimants in New York refuse to see it as such, but the move showed Putin’s influence over Lazar.

“He wanted to solve a problem,” Lazar said of Putin’s so-called compromise, “though it may have caused a problem for me.”

But Lazar and Putin’s relationship seems to go deeper than political expediency. In 2012, Lazar escorted the Russian leader on a tour of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. And last year Putin made Lazar a member of Russia’s prestigious Merit to the Fatherland order, the country’s highest civilian decoration and one that is rarely conferred on people who were not born in Russia. (Lazar became a Russian citizen in 2000.)

Lazar’s prominence has a powerful effect on his constituents. At a recent brit milah in Moscow, men lined up to shake his hand at a shul that fell silent when Lazar stepped in. After the shake, they kissed their own palm as a show of their reverence for Lazar.

Such reverence, said Lazar, is an unwanted byproduct of a title he neither coveted nor enjoys. The title, he insists, is nothing more than “a tool that allows me to achieve certain goals for my community.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent