MOSCOW, Oct. 5 (JTA) – Andrei Glotser tried to hide his concern about the future of Russian Jewish life with an uneasy smile.
“Our rebbe came today to the class downcast, and said: ‘Hard times are coming, boys. Goussinsky is out. No finance, no support,’ ” the 20-year-old Moscow university student said recently while he was visiting yeshiva classes at the Moscow Choral Synagogue.
Many Jewish activists in Moscow have shared this sense of impending doom as the Kremlin has cracked down on Vladimir Goussinsky, one of the largest financiers of Russian Jewish life, in the past year.
Last week, as if to demonstrate that rumors of its financial collapse are exaggerated, the Russian Jewish Congress put on a cross-country show.
The group flew a team a team of rabbis, officials, journalists plus a synagogue choir on a rented VIP-plane with a military crew and sent them on a whirlwind trip across Russia that went from Kaliningrad in the extreme west to the eastern city of Novosibirsk in Siberia.
The mission’s stated goals were twofold: to wish a happy Jewish New Year to Jewish communities throughout Russia and to hand over to local rabbis Torah scrolls, looted by the Soviet regime, that were recently retrieved from the Russian state archives and restored.
In each of the five cities visited by the entourage, RJC officials greeted the local Jewish public in a big concert hall and the Moscow synagogue choir entertained the gathering.
In three of them, Adolph Shayevich, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, handed over a Torah scroll to the local community.
But just as important, the group wanted to bolster the RJC’s forces in the city-to-city fight with the Chabad-dominated federation, as one Moscow Jewish activist put it.
“We have a struggle going on here,” said Boris Borovik, a young Jewish leader in Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Ural region, which is home to a 15,000-strong and thriving Jewish community.
His organization has never been part of the RJC and he is hesitant about joining the umbrella group. But, he says, he is worried that “Chabad will swallow the Jewish movement here.”
Goussinsky, a media mogul and the president of the RJC, is now living abroad after being briefly thrown in jail on charges of embezzlement.
At the same time, the RJC’s rival, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, has seen its fortunes rise in the see-saw of Russian Jewish life.
In most cities, the RJC has a group of local businessmen who sacrifice part of their time and money for benefit of the Jewish community.
Sometimes this local clique is highly effective in strengthening Jewish life – as it is in the city of Chelyabinsk, one of the cities visited on the tour and home to about 10,000 Jews.
A local RJC group managed recently to collect enough local money to build a brand new synagogue with only minor donations from Moscow.
The RJC also generally has a stronger relationship with local authorities.
But local religious communities belonging to the RJC are generally weak or invisible.
The most vital communities belong to the Chabad-Lubavitch federation.
In Yekaterinburg, for example, Chabad Rabbi Zelig Ashkenazi is running a daily Jewish high school with 200 students, the only such school in the region.
To develop a loyal community and counteract the growing Chabad influence, the RJC recently imported Rabbi Moshe Shteinberg, 25, from Israel to Yekaterinburg and say they will finance the building of a community center with a synagogue on a plot of land rented from the city.
Ashkenazi did not come to the ceremony where a Torah scroll was handed over to Shteinberg, who is Ukrainian-born and Israeli-educated.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a super-umbrella for the Chabad-led group, says he is tired of politics and wants to concentrate on concrete work in the communities.
“It is unfortunate that what is so widely reported is the politicization of the Jewish community, whereas the fact of the large rebirth of the Russian Jewish community and hundreds of thousands of Jews returning to Jewish life is not reported,” says Berkowitz.
But Chabad itself has not been above politics.
The movement, and its federation, has received several boosts from Russian President Vladimir Putin, most recently when Putin celebrated the gala opening of a multipurpose Jewish community center in Moscow.
This backing has frustrated RJC officials.
For Rosh Hashanah, Putin appeared to show balance when he sent greetings to the chief rabbis representing both umbrella groups.
The result of the rivalry is extreme polarization.
Federation members call the RJC structures soap bubbles and fakes.
RJC activists, in turn, complain that Chabad is buying off congregation members and officials.
For his part, Berkowitz admits that the group is giving some stipends to some elderly Jews. But he says, “We give them a very small stipend so that they can live and participate in services.
“But these are only elderly people and they represent only 2 percent of the participants who are coming to our programs,” Berkowitz adds. Shmuel Bludin, a community leader in the city of Novosibirsk, has only negative things to say about Chabad. But at the same time his own congregation has no rabbi and as a result they are “compelled,” as he puts it, to pray at services led by Chabad, which is the only organized religious community in the city.
In the meantime, most Russian Jews don’t care which group is in control as long as they are given emotional, spiritual and material help.
Whether the groups’ rivalry will help or hurt them remains to be seen.