[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Josh Tapper
Photographs by Max Avdeev
The expansive gold-tinted sanctuary inside the Marina Roscha synagogue sits at the top of an imposing central staircase, through a towering set of double doors. On a recent Friday evening, as the Sabbath began to fall in Moscow, the sanctuary was flooded with men, intimately backslapping and handshaking as if they were in a tiny shtiebel, not the palatial aerie of Chabad Lubavitch, the largest and most influential Jewish organization in Russia. In a corner near the entrance, Berel Lazar, the country’s Milan-born, New York-raised chief rabbi, sat inconspicuously at a table, quietly conducting a shiur (Torah lesson) in Russian to a rapt audience.
It is not uncommon for Chabad-run synagogues worldwide to attract non-Hasidim, and among the multitude of fedora-clad Lubavitchers at Marina Roscha was an eclectic bunch: teenage Jews in sweatshirts and baseball hats, clean-shaven Jews wearing tzitzit over their blue jeans, Israelis, Caucasians, the devout and the secular, the unaffiliated and the curious. Later, during a lavish, eight-course dinner – well stocked with luxury brand Beluga vodka – in one of the building’s three dining rooms, one Hasid told me with casual indifference that many of the synagogue-goers that evening probably weren’t even Jewish.
In the 15 years since Lazar assumed the leadership mantle of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the administrative organization that oversees Chabad’s activities in the country, that sort of mosaic has become commonplace at Marina Roscha.
There are roughly 200,000 Jews in Russia, though few would consider themselves Jewish in a way that would be familiar to their North American brethren – a direct consequence of more than seven decades of state-imposed atheism. In the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1920s, practicing Judaism was censured under a succession of anti-religion campaigns; while religious life moved underground, supported in large part by the persevering work of Lubavitch Hasidim, it was mostly erased from Jewish consciousness. Jews were branded as a nationality, the designation stamped in their identification papers, and religious customs and communal life faded from their identities. What resulted, says Simon Parizhsky, a Jewish Studies professor at Moscow State University, was “a divorce between ethnicity and religion.” Today, religion plays a tenuous role in the Russian conception of what it means to be Jewish. In an interview, Mikhail Chlenov, the chairman of the Va’ad of Russia, estimated less than five percent of Russian Jewry is religious.
But in spite of the general absence of Jewish observance, Chabad, glaringly religious with a strong missionary agenda, has become the dominant force in Russian Jewish life. Its reach extends to more than 170 cities across Russia, where in many far-flung locales the community center set up by the Lubavitch emissary and his family represents the only Jewish institution in town. Lazar estimates that 90 percent of rabbis in Russia are affiliated with Chabad. On top of its religious work, Chabad sponsors hundreds of schools and social-service programs, publishes a well-respected magazine, L’Chaim, and even stages klezmer festivals. In 2012, it opened the $50-million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center – with a sizeable donation from Russian Jewish billionaire Viktor Vekselberg – around the corner from Marina Roscha. Technologically dazzling and rooted in Russian history, the museum has become a token of Chabad’s acknowledgment of secular Jewish life.
“Chabad has a pretty broad vision,” says David Fishman, a historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of Project Judaica at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. “It’s got a religious agenda, but it knows that most people of Jewish background are not interested in religion, so it’s sponsored activities that are more cultural.”
But perhaps Chabad’s greatest source of influence can be traced to the connections it has nurtured with Russia’s political elite. Most Russian Jews are aware of Lazar’s proximity to President Vladimir Putin, whose name is emblazoned on the donor wall of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. Over the years the two men have routinely exchanged public vows of support, and critics have variously painted Lazar as a sort of “court Jew” who has pledged to support the Kremlin unconditionally in return for patronage. At the Kremlin last March, Lazar sat next to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, clapping as he watched Putin announce Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea. “Supporting the regime has helped them be as successful as they are,” Maria Kaspina, chief curator of the Museum of Jewish History in Russia, told me. “The Chabad way is a necessity.”
Lazar’s sixth-floor office at Marina Roscha is accessible only by elevator. When I met him there on an unseasonably warm, overcast Sunday in February he was preparing for an early Purim event that afternoon. In one week Federation would celebrate its 15th anniversary in Russia, with nearly 200 emissaries from around the country traveling to Moscow for the organization’s seventh congress. (At the congress, Putin praised Chabad for carrying out “great enlightenment and charity work.”)
We sat at a T-shaped desk, separated by a smattering of open prayer books and reams of paper, including a dossier on a real estate claim Chabad is making on an old synagogue in Oryol, a city about 200 miles south of Moscow. The man known as “Putin’s rabbi” seemed exhausted. He is 50 years old, with a sturdy build and impish smile, and speaks imperfect Russian with a disarming lisp. He first visited Russia as a rabbinical student in 1987, teaching in clandestine yeshivas during the dying days of the Soviet Union. He returned permanently in the early 1990s as part of a wave of Lubavitcher Hasidim who crashed the post-Soviet world, building synagogues, community centers and schools in regions where Jewish life had faded – laying the foundation for renewal even as hundreds of thousands of Jews were emigrating to Israel and the United States. “When I came back, our goal wasn’t to rebuild or build Chabad after communism,” Lazar says. “The idea was actually to rebuild the Jewish community. Openness was really our message.” As supreme as Chabad has become, that tireless work – and the Lubavitchers’ willingness to establish outposts across Russia’s vast territory – has earned the Hasidim a measure of respect from all corners of the Jewish community. “Chabad is the only movement that has always been here,” Parizhsky says.
Lazar’s ascension to chief rabbi happened at the same time that Putin assumed the presidency, in early 2000. The alliance to come, Chlenov says, was more pragmatic than ideological. Back then, the leader of Russian Jewry was a rabbi named Adolf Shayevich, who was connected to the influential Russian Jewish Congress, a secular organization founded in 1996 by Vladimir Gusinsky, a media mogul and liberal Putin critic. In June 2000, Gusinsky was arrested on charges that he embezzled millions from state-owned companies. The harassment was widely viewed by the international Jewish community as a crackdown on the Russian Jewish Congress – which under Gusinsky had become critical of the Putin regime – and a threat to Jewish life in Russia.
To fend off accusations of anti-Semitism, or so the story goes, Putin turned to Chabad. “The Kremlin decided that the person to succeed Gusinsky should be someone without political ambition,” Roman Spektor, vice-president of the Federal Jewish National Cultural Autonomy Council and a longtime Jewish activist, told me in his office overlooking the Moscow River. That man was Lazar, whom Chabad had elected as its chief rabbi in the hours before Gusinsky’s arrest. Jewish oligarchs who wanted to support Jewish institutions and curry favor with the new president were, allegedly, instructed to donate to Chabad, which is believed to have an annual operating budget of more than $60 million.
According to Lazar, Putin’s relationship with Chabad is based on a simple calculation, which applies to all religious groups in Russia: Putin has reoriented his country on a path to social conservatism, and thus he prefers to deal with the conservative wings of Russia’s religious communities. There is also a sense among Russian Jews that Putin’s strong public alliance with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group insulates his administration from charges of anti-Semitism, especially in today’s Russia, where nationalist fervor has reached fever pitch amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Lazar is fond of saying that it has never been safer to be Jewish in Russia. He trumpets how Russia has mostly cleansed itself of state and popular anti-Semitism – a rare public relations victory for the Kremlin as European governments struggle with escalating Jew-hatred on the continent – and famously criticized Ukrainian Jews last March for claiming Russia’s involvement in post-Maidan Ukraine had led to a surge in Jew-baiting. “I haven’t seen, maybe ever,” Lazar says, “strong support from people saying, ‘Wow, look at what Russia did. Let’s learn from Russia, let’s compliment Russia.’ Whether it’s coming from the State Department or the European Union.”
What Chabad stands to gain from the alliance is less clear. Curiously, Lazar has sided with Putin in an ongoing international legal dispute between the Kremlin and Chabad’s Brooklyn headquarters, which for decades has tried to wrest more than 15,000 of the late Lubavitcher rebbe’s books from Russian control, allowing internecine conflict to mushroom inside the Chabad movement rather than oppose the Russian government. While Lazar stood in Putin’s corner last year when the Russian president defamed Ukrainian reformers as “anti-Semites and neo-Nazis,” Lazar insists that Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities maintains the autonomy to speak out against the Kremlin. “We don’t feel in any way that [the Kremlin] is not giving us the right to say what we feel,” the rabbi told me.
The bargain includes an undeniable quid pro quo: Lazar’s loyalty to Putin at the very least enables Chabad to pursue its missionary work with little interference from authorities. And, maybe more important, it keeps challengers to Chabad’s authority at bay. In one famous case, Russian authorities annulled the visa of Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born rabbi of Moscow’s non-Chabad Orthodox Choral Synagogue, when the vocal Chabad critic tried to enter Russia following a 2005 vacation in Israel. Throughout the early 2000s, Chabad also capitalized on its Kremlin connections to secure private real estate that had been nationalized under the Soviets. Several Jewish leaders I spoke to stressed that the curdled relations of those years are a thing of the past, and organizations such as the Russian Jewish Congress, the Va’ad and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress all coexist with Chabad. But the religious disparities are stark: Conservative Judaism has no foothold on Russian soil and the Reform movement employs only seven rabbis across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
The uneven playing field engenders seething resentment among less-influential Jewish groups. Chabad’s financial wealth, and ability to fund programming nationwide, has sidelined smaller organizations, such as the World Union of Progressive Judaism, which represents 21 Reform congregations in Russia and plans to open the country’s first Reform seminary in Moscow later this year. “In the former Soviet Union, it’s us or Chabad,” says Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the WUPJ’s vice-president of philanthropy. “We do not have a positive relationship with them.” Other Jewish leaders point out that Chabad has no interest in sharing the wealth. Goldschmidt, who was readmitted to Russia and later granted citizenship, emphasized that for all the good work Chabad does in Russia it has been reluctant to build bridges. “They are using their connections for the advancement of their denomination,” Goldschmidt told me. “Any religious organization that is not affiliated with Chabad is not going to get any help from Chabad.” Parizhsky demurred slightly, noting that Eshkolot has run cultural programs in collaboration with Chabad.
There is an understandable temptation to view Chabad’s foothold under Putin as the unseemly product of a Faustian bargain with a regime some believe teeters on the brink of outright fascism. Whether the organization has secured its monolithic control over the Jewish scene through cloak-and-dagger dealmaking with Kremlin honchos is, perhaps, unknowable. Yes, it may be true that Chabad has used its proximity to power to eclipse other Jewish groups. But in Russia, any group – Jewish or not – hoping not just for favor but enduring survival must play by the rules. As the crisis in Ukraine drags into its second year, intensifying rumors of cracks in Putin’s once-ironclad authority, the challenge for Chabad will be to navigate a shifting political landscape and prepare for the day when its allies are no longer in power.
Regardless of Russia’s political future, there are those who believe that the Lubavitch brand, with its concentration on religious Judaism, has a marginal future in a country where the bulk of Jews have little interest in following a devout lifestyle. Parizhsky, for one, knocks Chabad for treating Russian Jews as tabula rasas, blank slates on which it insists the “only option of connecting to Jewish culture is a strictly religious one” while ignoring the secular values encoded in Soviet Jewish identity.
During our interview, Lazar told me that Chabad, by now, has touched a quarter of all Russian Jews. When I asked him about the challenge of reaching the remaining 75 percent, he responded in two ways. He is convinced that those who are open to Judaism, curious about it and, of course, have some exposure to Lubavitch teaching, will eventually gravitate toward traditional practice. His second response spoke to the basic reality of contemporary Jewish life in Russia, where the first religious encounter for many Jews takes place in the company of a thick-bearded Lubavitcher.
Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are few if any options aside from Chabad, the colossal force in Russian Jewish life. For Jews who want to get in touch with their roots, Lazar says, “they don’t have much of a choice.”
Josh Tapper is an award-winning journalist formerly based in Moscow. His writing has appeared in “The New York Times,” “The Globe and Mail,” “Tablet” and “The Jewish Telegraphic Agency,” among others. He is currently a graduate student in post-Soviet Russian Jewish cultural history at the University of Toronto.