Russian Library Launches Jewish Room, but Some of Its Contents Stir Controversy

A new Jewish book room at Russia’s main public library has opened — but has created controversy even before receiving its first patrons.

The room was inaugurated earlier this month at the Russian State Library, one of the world’s largest book depositories.

A leading Jewish academic praised the new facility, which is housed in what formerly was known as the Lenin Library.

“Until now, anyone doing scholarly Jewish research in Moscow had to leave Moscow to do it,” said Arkady Kovelman, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies and Jewish Civilization at Moscow State University.

“The library will contribute toward the growth of Jewish education and Jewish knowledge in the former Soviet Union.”

Meri Trifonenko, head of the center, said readers interested in Jewish studies could use the State Library’s Jewish collection inside the newly refurbished center and its brand new Hebrew reading room starting next month.

The Jewish library collection includes some 40,000 volumes in Hebrew, about 20,000 books in Yiddish and a few titles in Ladino, Trifonenko said.

But Chabad-Lubavitch is outraged by the new project because it includes the well-known Schneerson book collection, which belonged to a succession of Lubavitcher rabbis.

Since 1990, the Lubavitch movement has been trying to free the collection, which the Bolsheviks seized in the 1920s.

The fate of the Schneerson books is “the most passionate issue in the Chabad movement,” said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Lubavitch-dominated umbrella group and the largest community organization of Russian Jews.

“How can the public have access to these holy books unless they are returned to the Jewish community?” Berkowitz said.

“These books are worthless as books,” he added. But “they have a great spiritual value to 200,000 Lubavitchers around the world.”

In the dozen years since the collapse of communism, Russia has returned 30 books from the collection to the Lubavitch movement — mostly under various arrangements with U.S. officials.

In the post-Communist years, Russia failed to adopt any comprehensive legislation on the restitution of former private property, including cultural assets, making it especially difficult for the Chabad organization to lay claim to the books.

Victor Fedorov, the Russian State Library director-general, told JTA that taking into account Jewish religious concerns — and especially the sensitive issue of the Schneerson books — the library set aside a separate room adjacent to its new Hebrew reading room that will be used exclusively by readers of the books from the Lubavitch collection.

“One can pray in this room without disturbing other readers,” Fedorov said.

But a Moscow-based rabbi, who has been locally leading the effort to release the books, said this made no difference.

The old Lenin Library “has been and still remains a prison for the Jewish books. It will remain a prison until they return the books of the rebbe,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan, who is a Moscow representative of Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch of the Former Soviet Union, a group that was appointed by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with the goal of freeing the books.

The new room is a project of the state, which reached out to the Jewish Academic Library to help manage it, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The Jewish Academic Library is supported by the JDC, the Russian Jewish Congress, Moscow State University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Chabad officials said they were angered by the fact that the inauguration ceremony for the new library facility, which includes the Schneerson books, was planned by JDC, a Jewish group.

JDC representatives said it was Russia’s decision to create a Hebrew reading room, and they were pleased.

“There is a great value” in making available “these books that have been hidden from the public for so many years,” said Scott Richman, director of JDC’s Russia desk.

A few years ago, Kovelman, a prominent Judaica scholar who is also an academic adviser for the Moscow office of the JDC, started putting together a comprehensive library of contemporary books on Jewish subjects in Russian, English and other European languages.

The JDC-funded work resulted in some 3,000 volumes piled up in the scholar’s office, Kovelman said, prompting him to look for a professional facility where the books could be stored and read.

The most valuable part of the Russian State Library Judaica collection formerly belonged to the Gunzburg family, a succession of Russian Jewish aristocrats that amassed one of the world’s largest collections of antique Judaica books. The collection was nationalized by the Soviets after the family fled Russia following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Heirs of the family in the United States have recently explored with Russian authorities the possibility of getting the books back, a source familiar with the situation said.

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