Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appearance at this week’s dedication of a $10 million Jewish community center here is being seen as an unprecedented show of Kremlin support for Russian Jewry.
But the ceremony, and the building itself, represent other developments in the life of Russian Jewry that are perhaps just as significant.
Monday’s dedication of the Chabad-Lubavitch-sponsored building – the first of its kind in the region – is a shot in the arm for that movement as it engages in an internal struggle for control of Russian Jewry.
The group’s chief rival, the Russian Jewish Congress, has postponed until November the laying of the cornerstone of its own new community building.
The Chabad center – a still-unfinished seven-story, 45-room structure that includes a large synagogue and two mikvahs – also represents a fixture in Russian Jewry’s battle to survive, despite the mass exodus of the past decade.
Putin himself, who since coming to power last year has used every opportunity to express sympathy for the country’s estimated 600,000 Jews, seemed to echo that sentiment.
He said the spiritual revival of Russia is impossible without a “multicultural” approach and “the revival of the Jewish Russian community is an organic part of the national revival of Russia.”
The Russian president appeared to feel at ease with the Chasidic officials.
In a symbolically laden moment, Putin accepted a shofar, which had recently been blown, from one of Israel’s former chief rabbis, Mordechai Eliyahu, who had blessed him.
Just as significantly, he went out of his way to praise the Lubavitch, whose internal struggle with the RJC has led to charges and countercharges as well as speculation that the Kremlin is engaging in favoritism in the Jewish community.
The president called the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Lubavitch-dominated group, a “highly constructive and influential organization.”
The new center is just one of the group’s accomplishments in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
According to Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the American-born, Moscow-based executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which spans most of the former Soviet Union, the federation has created a wide network of synagogues, day schools, preschools and kindergartens and summer camps.
The organization is also involved in providing hot meals to the elderly, musical and theatrical groups, youth and sport clubs, circumcision centers and burial societies.
The group is simultaneously dedicating a synagogue in the center of Ukraine, clashing with a Reform group in Western Ukraine, opening a day Jewish school in the Russian Far East, opening a kosher restaurant in St. Petersburg, struggling with the authorities over an old synagogue in the capital of Georgia and trying to hinder Jews for Jesus activity in Siberia.
Chabad’s success stems from several factors. Some Jews across the former Soviet Union are searching for spiritual and educational sustenance after decades of atheistic communism.
Other Jewish groups have a presence in Russia and the other former republics, but none appear to be as well- financed or able to match the zeal and determination of Lubavitch.
Indeed, some Jewish activists aren’t happy with what they see as Chabad’s overaggressiveness.
“I can’t accept their methods. When they move in they try to seize and capture everything, and to squeeze the others out,” Michail, a young Jewish activist from the city of Saratov, told JTA.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leader of Chabad of Russia, is credited with being one of the main forces behind the Lubavitch movement’s success.
The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, sent the Italian-born and U.S.-educated rabbi to Russia in 1990, with the instruction that he should become chief rabbi.
Lazar, now 36, fulfilled the instruction in June, when the federation’s overwhelmingly Lubavitch rabbis elected him to that post.
Of course, that election created a stir because Russia has long had a chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, who continues to serve in that post – and is connected with the RJC.
The long-standing intrigue involving the two groups and their relationship to the Kremlin took a new twist this week, when the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, media magnate Vladimir Goussinsky, said he would not abide by a deal he had signed that convinced the Russian government to drop charges against him because it had been signed under duress.
In the deal, Goussinsky, who had been arrested and detained over the summer and now lives abroad, agreed to sell his newspaper and broadcasting businesses.
In this battle between the two groups, Putin’s administration has consistently supported the federation, whom they appear to consider, as one high Moscow official put it, “the most authentic Jews.”
This growing relationship has led to charges that the federation is in the Kremlin’s pocket.
Even Joel Golovensky, head of the Moscow office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is financially supporting some programs at the JCC, told JTA that he doesn’t like “Lazar’s inclination to excessive politicization.”
Some of Chabad’s Jewish rivals even claim that the administration’s support for the federation is linked to the increased business success of Lev Levayev, a Russian-born Jewish diamond tycoon who will reportedly purchase Armenia’s state diamond-cutting business.
But with all the intrigue and infighting, the backstabbing and bad-mouthing that seem to characterize Russian Jewish communal life today, the new community center here bolsters the view that the Russian Jewish community has a future.
Once it is complete, it will feature a library, restaurants, gymnasium, classrooms, youth halls, computer lab, exercise room, and theater hall.
As Anna, a 22-year university student attending the dedication, put it: “It all means to me we Jews are here to stay.”