MOSCOW (Dec. 3)
When the head of Russia’s largest Jewish group announced at a recent convention here that all of the group’s resolutions had been cleared with the Kremlin, some veteran Jewish activists were shocked.
Even in the post-Soviet era, many of these activists have shied away from the halls of power.
But for Valery Engel, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, and the representatives of the federation’s 150 constituent groups from across the country who gathered recently for the group’s second annual conference — the words seemed perfectly natural.
The federation’s alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin — combined with the energy of the group — has made it the driving force in Russian Jewry.
The federation’s growing network is active in at least 135 cities and towns across the country, running 32 synagogues, 120 Jewish centers, 17 day schools and 41 Sunday schools — and distributing 320 tons of matzah each Passover.
The group, which has a strong Lubavitch representation, prints books on Jewish traditions, edits newspapers and magazines and creates Jewish Web sites.
Next up — plans to open a Jewish university to enhance the professional level of Sunday school teachers..
Tens of thousands of Russians benefit from the federation’s activities.
Vera Eizenshtat, 72, a Moscow pensioner, says she gets food parcels through the Lubavitch-run distribution system. She also gets free tickets to Jewish concerts and performances, which she says helps her to socialize with other elderly Jews.
Vladimir Reznikov, a middle-aged community leader from the town of Novozybkov in western Russia, home to 300 Jews, receives two monthly allocations: $70 and $50.
The first sum permits him to run a Sunday school for 10 kids, and the second to fund weekly Sabbath celebrations for the community.
The money may seem laughable to Western ears, but he says this is the only real help the community gets from the Jewish world, besides the Chesed canteen for elderly Jews run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The emissaries’ tirelessness is evident across Russia’s vast land mass. Among their activities:
distributing food parcels to elderly Jews in the distant Far East island of Sakhalin on the Russo-Japanese border;
repairing a synagogue in the city of Kostroma in central Russia;
organizing a seminar for hundreds of Jewish youngsters in Kaliningrad in western Russia.
Federations throughout the former Soviet Union are united under one umbrella group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.
Now, this group’s leaders want to consolidate further and gather all the Russian-speaking Jews in the world into one group. The federation adopted a resolution of that nature at the federation’s conference, which brought 350 delegates from around the country.
Engel and Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the umbrella group, are planning to hold in December the first convention of Jewish activists from Russia, the United States and Israel to create an Executive Committee of the World Congress of Russian Jews.
The goals of this group, according to federation leaders, are to initiate cross-cultural programs, to promote investments in Russia and Israel, to support Israel and Russia in their fight against international terrorism, and to support Russia in its integration into the world community.
But even with the dedication of its emissaries, it is unlikely that the federation would have succeeded without the support of the Kremlin.
The romance with the Kremlin administration has long been evident.
Putin spoke at the opening ceremony of the center in September 2000, praising the group’s activities.
He then visited the center last Chanukah and spent three hours there, drinking Israeli wine and talking to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The group’s main funder, Lev Levayev, an Uzbek Jew who made aliyah at the beginning of the 1970s and became a diamond tycoon in Israel, is on friendly terms with the chief Kremlin executive, Alexander Voloshin, and with Putin himself.
Last January, Levayev dined in a Kremlin palace with Putin, Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who visited Moscow, and with the Lubavitch chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar — who for this dinner managed to have the Kremlin kitchen made kosher with a blowtorch.
For his part, Lazar does not lose any opportunity to praise Putin for making every effort to ensure a vastly improved quality of life for Jews in Russia.
Despite the almost unanimous support for Lazar at the convention, some dissidents were not happy with the alliance with the Kremlin.
“I don’t think this romance will last long. Putin will use it and do an about-face, which will be dangerous to Jews. He stays a KGB guy,” said Mark Aron, a delegate to the convention, referring to Putin’s former work for the Soviet spy agency.
Federation officials disagree that the close relationship with the Russian president could backfire.
“What they call ‘the federation’s close relationship with Putin’ is actually normal cooperation with a president who sympathizes with the Jews. And I feel personally and from other sources that he is sincere in this sympathy,” said Michael Gluz, the federation’s president.
The federation’s rise has come at the expense of its rival, the Russian Jewish Congress, which has suffered from a Kremlin campaign that chased its former president, Vladimir Goussinsky, out of the country.
Goussinsky now lives in the United States.
But in recent weeks, tensions surfaced between the federation and another Jewish group, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Officials of both groups say that money lies at the heart of the dispute between federation and the JDC, which operates hundreds of Chesed welfare centers and JCCs across the FSU and is building a system of more secular-oriented Jewish communities.
The tensions surfaced in recent weeks, when the JDC opened a new community center in Moscow — and federation leaders complained that the JDC does not adequately support the federation’s efforts.
The tensions escalated further when Engel demanded at his group’s conference that any JDC project costing more than $50,000 be coordinated with all major Russian Jewish organizations.
For their part, JDC officials say there is enough room for two centers to operate in Moscow.
But further clashes appear likely between the two groups, each of which operates a budget of between $30 million and $40 million for activities in the region.
“There are currently two strong players in the same field, and they inevitably have to clash,” said Mark Grubarg, a federation leader in St. Petersburg.