NEW YORK (Oct. 23)
The Soviet Union might consider sending rabbinical candidates to the United States for training and ordination in response to a shortage of rabbis in the USSR, Konstantin Kharchev, chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs in the USSR, told a press conference here Thursday. But such an arrangement, he said, would depend on the “climate between the two countries. As you know, relations between our countries right now are quite bad.”
Kharchev, whose position in the USSR is equivalent to that of Minister of Religion, is visiting the United States at the invitation of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an ecumenical coalition of Jewish and Christian religious and lay leaders, whose president is Rabbi Arthur Shneier of the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan. This is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that an individual holding such a high religious ministerial position is visiting the U.S. Kharchev’s 12-day tour includes Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.
Addressing the press conference at the Overseas Press Club, Kharchev said the USSR is moving in the direction of democratizing government policy toward religion. He said cheerfully that he himself is “a non-believer, a Communist” but that nevertheless “I treat believers with respect.”
EVASIONS AND DENUNCIATIONS
But the Soviet official became evasive or denunciatory when he was pressed for specific answers by the reporters about the treatment of Jews in the USSR. He denied any allegations of mistreatment of Jews or Jewish places of worship, and hewed to the official Soviet line regarding the proscription of religious study and possession of religious books. He professed to have no knowledge of specific cases of Jews who were being mistreated or harassed.
Kharchev claimed that Soviet law forbids religious study prior to adulthood, the possession of more than one religious book “brought over international borders,” and forbids Soviet prisoners to have religious books in their possession “because they broke the law.”
In answer to a question by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about religious study and a reportedly destroyed mikveh in the Marina Roscha Synagogue in Moscow, Kharchev appeared to become angered, demanding to know what the news sources were, and denouncing persons in the West who, he claimed, spread lies given them by Soviet citizens.
Kharchev did not answer the JTA’s question of why Jewish children cannot study Judaism or Talmud, as they are mandated to from the time they can read according to the Jewish religion. Nor did he answer the charge that Jewish study groups are harassed.
Kharchev said he knew nothing until today of the case of Piotr (Pinchas) Polanski, a Moscow refusenik who was formally warned to stop his activities, which allegedly consisted of organizing an unregistered religious community at the Marina Roscha Synagogue, active participation in Talmud study at the end of morning services, and the wearing of yarmulkes by his guests.
Jonathan Wolf, a New York teacher of Jewish studies who just returned from the Soviet Union, confronted point-by-point Kharchev’s denials and evasions. Wolf told Kharchev that Soviet Jews “live in fear and harassment. The freedom you talk about does not exist.”
Wolf persistently asked why he had been denied entry into a church by a policeman, why Leningrad Hebrew teacher Miriam Furman told him she was unable to get dictionaries, and why a group of students spending the Sabbath with Leonid (Elimelech) Rakhlin and his wife Golda outside Leningrad in January had been beaten up, two of them seriously. Wolf asked if the “process of democratization” will affect this, as well as members of study groups who are harassed.
“I met people,” answered Kharchev, “who paid $500 for those who could bring such fairytales from the Soviet Union.” In this and other instances, he said, “enemies of the Soviet State propagate lies.”
When asked why the mikveh (ritual bath) at the Marina Roscha Synagogue had been destroyed last week, during the night, by throwing in stones, Kharchev said alternately that the mikveh was constructed against the “building code” and that it wasn’t true that the mikveh had been destroyed. He claimed that someone visiting could verify this.
He also said that Polanski should have spoken to the proper authorities first about his study group, although he initially claimed to not know anything about the issue.
Kharchev, speaking about the Marina Roscha Synagogue, said, “You have the wrong information. If I am right, you are wrong. I never heard about it. We have no plans to close any synagogue in the USSR.”
Rabbi Schneier, asked after the conference the purpose of bringing Kharchev here, said, “What you heard today will be raised in public and that will result in action.”