Behind the Headlines; Russia Now Has Its Own Chief Rabbi, but Significance of Post Not Clear
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Behind the Headlines; Russia Now Has Its Own Chief Rabbi, but Significance of Post Not Clear

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For the first time in its history, Russia has a chief rabbi.

But it is not yet clear what significance the new post will have for a Jewish community that is overwhelmingly secular and for a Russian government that no longer attempts to exercise control over religious communities.

Rabbi Adolf Shayevitch, 56, the longtime religious leader of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue and the former government-appointed-chief rabbi of the Soviet Union, was elected Russian chief rabbi in late February by the Association of Jewish Religious Communities in Russia.

His chief rival for the post, 29-year-old Swiss-born Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, was elected deputy chief rabbi and named chief rabbi of Moscow.

Goldschmidt’s candidacy had been championed by some rabbis and a number of Jewish groups outside Russia.

Educated in the United States and Israel, Goldschmidt, who has headed the Choral Synagogue’s Beth Din (religious court) for the past two years, is thought of as more scholarly than Shayevitch, who was born in the eastern Siberian town of Khabarovsk and trained as a rabbi in Budapest.

But Goldschmidt is also regarded as an “outsider” who is tied to fervently Orthodox circles. The attempt to elect him chief rabbi of Russia was seen by some as a move to impose Judaism from abroad on the community here.

“The whole idea of electing a chief rabbi was conceived by foreign rabbis who thought they could install their man. In the end, they compromised to enable the status quo to be preserved,” said a top secular Russian Jewish activist who requested anonymity.

“We cannot and should not choose the leadership of Russian Jewry,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York, a longtime supporter of Shayevitch who flew to Moscow for the election. “We’re there to help but not to rule,” he said.


Schneier was by no means the only foreigner to come to Moscow for the election, which was actually held aboard a cruise ship.

Also present were rabbis from Israel and representatives of such organizations as the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

But the event aroused little attention in the Russian press or among Russia’s overwhelmingly secular Jewish population, estimated at about 1 million.

That is because the Association of Jewish Religious Communities represents only a small fraction of Russian Jews. Shayevitch himself admitted that many of the association’s 32 member communities have difficulty attracting a minyan or quorum of 10, on Shabbat.

Moreover, not all of the religious groups active in Russia participated in the election.

The Lubavitcher Hasidism, active in many Russian cities, did not participate, nor did the Reform branch of Judaism, which now has activities in nearly 20 communities throughout Russia.

The chief rabbi is also not expected to wield the kind of power that he might have under the former Soviet Communist government.

Under Communist rule, the Council on Religious Affairs of the Soviet Council of Ministers oversaw all religious activity, but that body ceased when the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991.

The Russian government now has “no control over any religious organization,” said Igor Khamanev, who serves on the Russian parliament’s Committee on Freedom of Conscience and Religion.

The situation in Russia differs in a number of respects from that in other ex-Soviet republics with significant Jewish populations.

In Ukraine and Belarus, for example, the Communist-era Council on Religious Affairs still exists at the Cabinet level, although the ideological function of controlling religion has disappeared.

Officials at those councils contacted by telephone from Moscow confirmed that the governments of Ukraine and Belarus do recognize the chief rabbis that were elected by their Jewish communities.


In Ukraine, the situation is unclear. A Ukrainian official said his government recognizes Rabbi Noyakh Dubinsky, head of the Kiev Jewish religious community, as the country’s chief rabbi.

But Rabbi Dubinsky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that a Lubavitcher, Rabbi Dov Karasik, had been elected chief rabbi at the end of 1991. Yet another rabbi, the American-born Yaakov Bleich, has played a leading role at Kiev’s main synagogue for more than two years.

In Belarus, a government official, Terenty Kupcheniya, said Rabbi Yitzchok Wolpin had been elected chief rabbi of the country in January. Wolpin is a 25-year-old native of Monsey, N.Y.

In the Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania, foreign-born rabbis also seem to be in charge.

In Latvia, an official of the Justice Ministry’s Department of Religious Affairs, Arnold Kublinskas, confirmed that an Israeli, Rabbi Natan Barkan, is regarded as chief rabbi.

Barkan confirmed this, saying, “I’m the official representative of the Latvian Jewish community to the government.”

In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, a leading Jewish activist, Sofia Tzibutzena, said Rabbi David Smith of London is the chief rabbi in that republic, commuting there regularly from the British capital.

Despite the variations in recognition and status, there are nevertheless patterns in synagogue-state relations that emerge in conversations in all of these republics, including Russia.

One is that the level of local Jewish participation in the selection of chief rabbis is low, limited to religious activist circles.

A second pattern is the strong predominance of foreign rabbis.

A third is that the governments concerned regard the matter as internal to the Jewish community, whether or not the government honors the title of “chief rabbi.”

In all of these republics, the long years of Communist rule depleted the number of local rabbis. Shayevich estimated that there are only “five or six” Russian rabbis in all of Russia.

Said a secular activist: “All the rabbis here are imported.”

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