Hostile Takeover In Moscow?
Critics of Chabad-led umbrella group angry as shul changes hands; AJCongress dragged into controversy.
Walter Ruby - Special To The Jewish Week
Since Rabbi Berel Lazar of Chabad Lubavitch was appointed chief rabbi of Russia by President Vladimir Putin in 2000, the Federation of Russian Jewish Organizations, or FEOR, has grown in stature in the 500,000-strong Jewish community. Even critics of the Chabad-dominated umbrella body acknowledge that Chabad has worked wonders in bringing Yiddishkeit to communities large and small throughout the former Soviet Union.
Yet a month after FEOR demonstrated its primacy by signing a pact with the American Jewish Congress to work together to combat anti-Semitism in Russia — the first time a major American Jewish group has reached an agreement with FEOR — a number of prominent Russian Jews have condemned FEOR for what they believe is a heavy-handed takeover of a Moscow synagogue and community center.
The move, critics say, is the latest in a series of takeovers of property affiliated with other Jewish groups that appear at odds with the ethos of a worldwide religious movement that proclaims its love for every Jew.
The most recent FEOR takeover took place at the Darkei Shalom synagogue in northern Moscow. The shul is affiliated with Chamah, a religious and social welfare movement on behalf of former Soviet Jews with offices in New York and Israel, as well as Moscow. The spiritual leader of Darkei Shalom, Rabbi David Karpov, is a devotee of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, yet over the years he has distanced himself from FEOR.
Rabbi Karpov, the first Russian-born rabbi to be ordained and start a congregation after the breakup of the Soviet Union, said he was jolted last month by a phone call from Rabbi Lazar, the founder of FEOR, informing him that the owner of the Otradnoe housing complex where Darkei Shalom is located was giving the synagogue complex to FEOR as a gift.
Rabbi Lazar also informed Rabbi Karpov that he might be allowed to stay on as rabbi of the congregation, but only if he agreed to serve under FEOR’s aegis.
To enforce its new status, FEOR has dispatched a guard and a manager to Darkei Shalom who have begun enforcing a new set of regulations Rabbi Karpov considers onerous. One stipulates that everyone, including Rabbi Karpov, must leave the synagogue complex no later than 30 minutes after evening prayers, making it impossible for the rabbi to teach classes.
Another new rule forbids people from sleeping over at the facility on Friday nights, a practice Rabbi Karpov sees as a “mitzvah” that has enabled single men and families who cannot walk home on Shabbat because the synagogue is in a remote section many miles from their homes to attend services.
Meanwhile, Chamah’s main office in Moscow last week received an official letter from a court in the capital asserting that the group, which runs a day school and soup kitchens there as well as Darkei Shalom, did not properly register its programs and institutions with the government. As a result, the letter said, it may be prevented from operating.
Rabbi Karpov, who asserts that Chamah registered its programs every six months as legally required, believes the timing of the “out of the blue” legal challenge is not coincidental, given the closeness of Putin to Rabbi Lazar. The chief rabbi is known to meet with the president in the Kremlin every couple of months, and has consistently defended Putin as a friend of the Jews and supporter of democracy.
That support has continued even as Putin’s government has become more authoritarian and as Putin supporters in the Duma published a virulently anti-Semitic letter for which the president subsequently apologized.
Rabbi Karpov fears the letter from the court may be a prelude to a move by the government to confiscate all Chamah facilities in Moscow and hand them over to FEOR.
Asked whether his organization wants to take control of Chamah’s day school, FEOR spokesman Baruch Gorin replied, “No, but if the Russian government, which accredited the school, were to turn to us and say they will close the school unless we take control of it, of course we would do that.”
FEOR’s recent moves have met with stiff resistance.
In a recent open letter to FEOR, Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s second chief rabbi and a longtime rival of Rabbi Lazar, and 16 other rabbis from around Russia wrote, “We would like to express our deep disappointment and discontent with the recent attempt of FEOR to forcefully capture the Darkei Shalom Congregation, one of the most successful and respected Jewish congregations of Russia. This kind of attitude demonstrated by Rabbi Berel Lazar contradicts the spirit of Torah and is apparently based on typical methods deployed by Russian criminals.”
The rabbis asserted that the attempted takeover of Darkei Shalom is only the latest in a string of similar efforts by FEOR in recent months directed against Jewish congregations in the Russian cities of Saratov, Omsk and Yaroslavl.
Gorin dismissed the characterization by Shayevich concerning FEOR efforts to take over Jewish communities in those cities.
“Actually, new forces inside those communities came forward and asked us to take them over,” he said.
Rabbi Shayevich, who was in New York last week for meetings with American Jewish leaders, told The Jewish Week, “The American Jewish Congress may feel they are helping matters by joining forces with FEOR, but FEOR doesn’t need such support. They already have too much money and power, and are using it to destroy all Jewish organizations which resist Chabad’s total domination of Russian Jewish life.”
Mikhail Chlenov, the Moscow-based general-secretary of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, a body representing many of the Jewish communities of the FSU, said AJCongress President Jack Rosen and other American Jewish leaders ought to “take into account the ongoing effort by FEOR to monopolize all of Jewish life in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union” before implementing the agreement it signed with FEOR.
Several American Jewish leaders well familiar with Russian Jewry also indicated unease with FEOR tactics.
Scott Richman, director of the FSU desk at the American Joint Distribution Committee, which funds the social service programs of both Chamah and FEOR, said that while the JDC would not involve itself in the struggle over Darkei Shalom, “If there were any attempt by FEOR to force its way into Chamah’s [social] welfare programs, that would cause a disruption.”
Jerry Goodman, director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, who served during the 1970s and ’80s as head of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, seemed to offer an implicit critique of the AJCongress alliance with FEOR.
“As a general rule, I find it not particularly helpful for individual American organizations to jump onto the Russian scene on their own,” Goodman said. “Doing so unravels the precedent we maintained during the struggle for Soviet Jewry that American Jewish organizations should work collectively in Russia and the FSU.”
Many in Moscow speculate that Rabbi Lazar, who was born in Italy, perceives the native-born Rabbi Karpov as a threat because the latter is widely viewed as better able to connect with Moscow Jewry than are the vast majority of Chabad rabbis in the FSU, who hail from the United States, Israel and Europe.
Gorin said he is “hopeful” that that the FEOR-AJCongress agreement will afford FEOR expanded access to the American Jewish leadership and to policymakers in Washington.
Rosen is standing by the alliance with FEOR.
“I’m not privy to the facts of what has happened at that synagogue,” the AJCongress leader said. “It appears to be an internal matter between Russian Jewish groups. Our own agreement with [FEOR] extends only to joint efforts to fight anti-Semitism.”
Asked about Goodman’s complaint about American Jewish groups forming alliances with Russian Jewish organizations, Rosen said, “We aren’t playing favorites but rather are offering to work with all Russian Jews. Still, the fact is that the federation is the largest Jewish organization in Russia. I don’t believe their connection with Lubavitch should deter us from working with them in the struggle against anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Karpov disagrees.
“The American Jewish Congress may say they signed that agreement with FEOR to fight anti-Semitism,” he said, “but the fact is that our congregation is not being persecuted by anti-Semites but rather by FEOR itself.”
Look at it this way, people. What goes on in Russia today will surely happen in America in the not to distant future. Stop Chabad now, before it is too late. How? Stop giving them money.
[Thank you to Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt for having the courage to publish this artcle.]
[Hat tip: Tzemach Atlas.]