Behind the Headlines Russian Umbrella Group Seeks Unity

Russia’s oldest religious umbrella group has narrowly avoided a split in its ranks.

Activists from the provinces fought back against a proposed leadership change in the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, or KEROOR, proposed by the organization’s Moscow-based officials. While the change ultimately went through, provincial activists did receive more representation in the group’s main decision-making body.

Many in KEROOR believe the compromises reached in a recent three-day conference will help unify the group and boost it financially.

KEROOR, which represents non-Chasidic Orthodox congregations in Russia and some Reform ones, has been plagued in recent years by financial difficulties, vaguely formulated goals and reduced significance in a community now dominated by a more powerful and affluent Chabad-led religious umbrella organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities, or FEOR.

“This was the most democratic convention any Russian Jewish organization had in many years,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a KEROOR leader, told JTA after the Jan. 28-30 conference at a retreat near Moscow.

Provincial representatives, who say KEROOR’s Moscow-based leadership often disregards their opinions, backed businessman Anatoly Pinsky — who is from Moscow but has been receptive to the province’s needs — when he rebuffed pressure to step down as executive vice president.

Pinsky ultimately agreed to step down until the group’s next convention — tentatively slated for April — but the heated debate apparently reaped dividends: KEROOR’s new presidium was expanded to include 15 representatives from the provinces, out of 20 total; the previous presidium included only two people from outside Moscow among its nine members.

The majority of KEROOR’s 69 member communities, who hail from 60 cities across Russia, and half of its two dozen rabbis represent the provinces.

Meanwhile, in a compromise that was approved by most of the 60 or so people at the conference, Leopold Kaimovsky, chief executive of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, was appointed as KEROOR’s acting chief executive until the next convention.

KEROOR also decided to rewrite its charter before the April meeting. Most delegates expect a new charter to give provincial leaders more say in decision-making, make the organization more transparent and thus more attractive to donors, and provide a clearer strategy.

Participants expressed cautious optimism about KEROOR’s future.

“After everything has been said and done, both Moscow and the regions have to work closer together, and have to have transparency and equal representation on the bodies,” said Goldschmidt, head of KEROOR’s rabbinical court and chief rabbi of Moscow.

Despite the compromises, most participants did not rule out the continued possibility of a split in the organization if Moscow and the regional congregations can’t reconcile their positions by April.

Under Russian law, religious congregations must belong to a central umbrella group. The country’s Jewish community is currently served by three such umbrellas — FEOR, KEROOR and OROSIR, a union of Reform Jewish congregations.

In recent years, KEROOR has lost a few provincial communities to FEOR, which offered them better funding. A FEOR spokesman said his group’s door is always open to new members.

New membership in FEOR “does not depend on the background of a congregation,” Boruch Gorin told JTA. “This depends on how active the congregation is. If it’s a real functioning congregation, there’s no question” it can join FEOR.

Delegates at the KEROOR conference discussed topics ranging from outreach to unaffiliated Jews to interfaith dialogue, but the issue that topped the agenda was the proposed replacement of Pinsky.

The initiative came from KEROOR’s president and main donor, Russian-Israeli billionaire philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak. According to some participants, Gaydamak told the convention that “he did not see” Pinsky in his current position anymore and wanted the delegates to elect a new leader.

But Pinsky, 43, fought against his dismissal, and his resistance served as a wake-up call for delegates from the provinces.

Lyudmila Zakharova, one of the delegates, called what was happening in KEROOR a “crisis.”

“Until this convention, regional communities served as a crowd that was supposed to rubber-stamp any decision made by Moscow,” said Zakharova, a leader of the Tkhiya Jewish Orthodox congregation in the central Russian city of Ryazan.

Zakharova and many other delegates who backed Pinsky demanded a clear explanation of the proposed reshuffling in KEROOR, and she was apprehensive that a new executive would be as attentive to the interests of the provinces as Pinsky had been over years.

Through many trips to the provinces, Pinsky forged good relations with KEROOR’s local member congregations.

“He respected our opinion and always listened to us,” said Zakharova, one of the most vocal representatives of the provinces at the conference.

Most delegates representing provincial communities rallied behind Pinsky when they saw him resisting attempts to fire him.

Their unity was cemented in a meeting last week that Pinsky organized for regional KEROOR leaders in a separate location near Moscow, just hours before the opening of the main conference. Some Pinsky critics described that meeting as an attempt to split the group, while those who back him say it was an open discussion about the organization’s future.

In the main conference, a standoff between the group’s Moscow-based leaders and Pinsky, backed by the majority of the provincial delegates, could have sparked a mass defection if the matter had been put to a direct vote.

But the heated discussion resulted in a compromise that some said was the only way for the Moscow leaders to save face and maintain the group’s unity.

“The communities in the provinces have changed; they clamor for more attention, while KEROOR has remained the same,” Pinsky said.

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