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Across the Former Soviet Union Plan to Unite Russian Jewry Goes Up in Smoke As Conflicts Remain

Russian Jewish groups apparently just can’t get along.

The failure of a plan billed by proponents as an attempt to overcome the split between Russian Jewry’s two main umbrella organizations again has highlighted their divisions.

The short-lived initiative first surfaced in December and was dropped late last month without much negotiation between the rival parties.

The plan sought to create a single community structure to replace the two rival religious umbrella organizations, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, and the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities.

The federation, Russia’s largest Jewish organization, is dominated by members of the Chabad Lubavitch organization and is run by Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, who was installed to his post four years ago with what many saw as support from the government.

The congress, which includes both Orthodox and Reform congregations, is allied with Adolf Shayevich, the longtime Russian chief rabbi. Shayevich was elected to this post a decade ago, before Chabad made great strides in winning the support of numerous communities across post-Soviet territory.

The stakes are high: Estimates of Russian Jewry run anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people.

The idea to unite the two groups, who have been feuding for four years, was backed — if not designed — by Vladimir Resin, the Jewish deputy mayor of Moscow and a recent newcomer to organized Jewish life.

On Dec. 16 Resin called a closed meeting between two leaders of the federation and Shayevich, and proposed that the participants sign a memorandum to create a group called the United Jewish Community.

Shayevich refused to put his signature under a memorandum proposed by the federation. If adopted, he feared, the plan could pave the way for all Russian Jewish religious communities to come under control of the Lubavitch-run federation. The memorandum establishes co-presidents, but puts executive authority for the new group under the federation’s leader.

“I am open to the idea of communal unity but we should first take some steps, have some discussion. This shouldn’t be a decision between a few people,” Shayevich told JTA.

Alexander Boroda, the federation’s executive vice president, has told JTA that the meeting was the beginning of a longer process of unification reflecting a “general tendency” in the community to seek unity after years of infighting.

“I’m hoping the process will go on,” he said in December.

According to the text of the memorandum — which was never made public — the newly united community would embrace all religious congregations that belong to the rival umbrella groups.

Furthermore, the plan stated that the property of all Jewish congregations — including synagogues and other community-owned pieces of real estate — should become the property of the united organization.

Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders said they feared that the plan eventually would ostracize Reform groups. The memorandum clearly stated that the new group should function in accordance with Jewish religious law, or halachah.

Reform congregations, which do not follow halachah, account for about one-third of the 240 Jewish congregations registered with Russia’s Justice Ministry.

Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, leader of the Reform movement in Russia, said he is not happy about the plan.

“Our previous experience of talking to the federation has shown that they are ready to acknowledge our existence as a cultural or educational entity, but not as a Jewish religious movement,” Kotlyar said.

Boroda tried to dispel fears by telling JTA in December that “non-Orthodox organizations should also be included in the united community.”

But the most recent development most likely will bury the unification plan, at least for the time being.

On Jan. 26, members of the congress were offered a counter-plan drafted by their leadership.

The plan sought to create a Joint Coordination Council of Jewish Organizations of Russia with elected leadership and representatives of all major Jewish groups, both religious and secular, as its members.

The congress’ plan would establish a looser coordinating council, and would include both religious and secular groups.

The plan was to be put to a vote at the annual meeting of congress rabbis in Moscow. But most of the rabbis who spoke at the meeting criticized the idea of merging with the federation, saying the federation favored a merger because of political considerations, not by a real desire to overcome the split.

“It’s too early to enter into a marriage when love hasn’t come yet,” Rabbi Haim Burshtein of St. Petersburg told the participants.

The federation’s Lazar has refused to comment on the congress’ initiative.

The congress leaders said they presented their proposal to the federation, despite the lack of enthusiasm. The federation was invited to participate in the rabbinical meeting but didn’t send its representatives.

However, a federation source close to Lazar said the congress is not serious about uniting.

Boroda, the federation’s chief executive, told JTA that the idea of a coordination council has little to do with communal unity.

“This is a completely different idea. These are just fine words,” Boroda said. “They have openly stated that they do not want to unite.”

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