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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jewish Leaders Plagued by Kremlin Politics

The Kremlin's attack on media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, who is the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, has had a peculiar side effect: It has highlighted divisions and fights for influence within the Jewish community, which some Jewish leaders say are being exploited by the Kremlin for its own political ends.

The turmoil erupted last week when Jewish leaders associated with Gusinsky complained that an unidentified Kremlin official had urged Chief Rabbi of Russia Adolph Shayevich to step down in favor of Rabbi Berl Lazar, a 36-year old Italian-born U.S. citizen.

Lazar leads the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, or FEOR, an organization created in November with the Kremlin's blessings. It was seen as an alternative to Gusinsky's Congress and appeared to have the support of Boris Berezovsky, a Kremlin insider and Gusinsky's rival in the media business.

The Jewish leaders' allegations provoked protests from Jewish leaders here and abroad against government interference in religious affairs.

Although only a small minority of Russia's Jews are religious and the title of chief rabbi is largely symbolic, it is nonetheless important to Jews. At the core of the conflict is a competition among several Jewish umbrella organizations claiming to represent Russian Jewry before the government and before Western Jewish organizations, who donate millions of dollars for Jewish charity, reconstruction of synagogues, the building of Jewish schools and other aspects of Jewish life.

Mikhail Chlenov, an academic and veteran Jewish leader, said Wednesday he sees the clash as a spillover of the conflict between the Kremlin and Gusinsky.

The attack on Gusinsky's Media-MOST - government-controlled companies calling in Media-MOST's debts and federal agents raiding its offices - and the attempt to replace Shayevich are "undoubtedly, links of the same chain," said Chlenov, who chairs VAAD, the oldest Jewish umbrella organization in the former Soviet Union.

Shayevich denied he had been pressured by the Kremlin. "This is a misunderstanding," Shayevich was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying Tuesday at a news conference in New York. "Even in Soviet times it never happened that someone called and said you should step down." He confirmed that he had written a letter to Putin asking for a meeting of Jewish leaders.

Alexander Osovtsov, executive secretary of the Russian Jewish Congress, and Reform Rabbi Zinovy Kogan both said in interviews that Shayevich had told them about a visit from a FEOR representative followed by a telephone call from the Kremlin asking him to step down in favor of Lazar.

According to a copy of Shayevich's letter to Putin dated May 31, obtained by The Moscow Times, the chief rabbi was left off the invitation list to Putin's inauguration on May 7 and representatives of the Habad Lubavitch movement were invited instead. Shayevich received an invitation only after the "interference of various influential people."

On May 31, the letter said, Shayevich "learned from official sources" that FEOR, whose religious leaders are Habad, intends to organize its own congress, with the blessing of the presidential administration, and elect its own chief rabbi of Russia. "Of course, I have no intention of doing it [stepping down]," Shayevich wrote.

Osovtsov said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Israel that Lazar is not qualified to be the chief rabbi. "The chief rabbi of Russia has to be an adult and has to speak Russian well. He also should represent mainstream Judaism and not one of the movements," he said.

The conflict underscores the denominational division within religious Jews.

On the one hand, there is Kogan's Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations, or KEOOR, which has under its auspices about 100 groups belonging to moderate orthodox Judaism, mitnaggedim, and the Reform movement. Chlenov's VAAD unites about 200 religious and secular Jewish groups. Shayevich - a 62-year-old Russian-born rabbi who has led the Moscow Choral Synagogue since the early 1980s, was appointed by the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs and appeared never to irritate the government - is recognized by both as the chief rabbi.

Gusinsky's Russian Jewish Congress, formed in 1995, bills itself as a nondenominational organization set up to fund allbranches of Jewish activities in Russia. It also recognizes Shayevich as chief rabbi. There is one more umbrella organization - Jewish National Cultural Autonomy, which is co-chaired by Shayevich, Chlenov and Osovtsov.

On the other hand, there is the ultra-orthodox, energetic and well-funded Habad - a Hasidic group that traces its roots to 18th century Russia but has its modern center in Brooklyn, New York. Its veneration of its late leader as a messiah is not accepted by other Jews, whose doctrine was formulated in opposition to Hasidism. But Habad leaders in Russia, who have been among the most active Jewish missionaries in post-Soviet Russia, cannot accept the presence of Reform Jews. Lazar, rabbi of the Lubavitcher synagogue in Maryina Roshcha, has built a remarkable Jewish community center and spread his activity throughout the country. He led a group called Council of Rabbis of the CIS and founded FEOR. FEOR was set up to register Habad communities under the 1997 religion law, but its widely reported founding congress in November was seen as the Kremlin's and Berezovsky's attempt to steal the show from Gusinsky.

"I don't know what Berezovsky's role in it really was, but objectively they [FEOR] found themselves on Berezovsky's side," said Leonid Lvov, a Jewish human rights activist from St. Petersburg.

In an interview Wednesday, Lazar denied any connection with Berezovsky, who he said "did not give us a penny." Lazar said he would cooperate with Gusinsky's group.

Gusinsky's position as a Jewish leader has helped his business contacts.

"Gusinsky was the first to understand that the doors of influential bankers and businessmen in the West would open in front of him more often if he controls the activities of Jewish organizations in Russia," Berezovsky-controlled Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote earlier this year.

At a news conference Wednesday held at the government-owned RIA Novosti news agency and reported in detail by pro-Kremlin television news, FEOR leaders portrayed themselves as a national, nondenominational Jewish organization. They said about 80 communities belong to their organization and downplayed contradictions between the umbrella organizations.

"In a huge country like Russia, there can be as many Jewish organizations as possible," said Mikhail Gluz, president of FEOR.

Lazar recalled a meeting with Putin in which the president told him about his Jewish neighbors in a communal apartment and summarized that he was well-disposed toward Jews. St. Petersburg religious Jewish community leader Mark Grubarg stressed that the city never interfered in the life of the Jewish community when Putin was deputy mayor.

All Jewish leaders and activists interviewed appeared to be saddened by the scandal around Shayevich.

"All this has nothing to do with the life of the Jewish community of Russia," Lvov said. "It has to do with political games, in which both sides happened to be involved."

Gluz said FEOR wants to hold a congress, but not to elect a chief rabbi. A more important goal, he said, is to ease tension within the Jewish community.