Visitors to any capital city in the former Soviet Union are likely to find a building much like the one at Kropotkina 22 in central Minsk.
Situated on prime real estate and a stone’s throw from the U.S. Embassy, it bears the insignia of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Yet this particular Chabad synagogue and community center is strikingly different from its neighbors in the Belarusian capital: It’s as empty as a ghost town.
The center, with its cracked brown fa??ade and rusted gates, is visual testimony to the fate in Belarus of Chabad, the most widespread and arguably most influential Jewish organization in nearly every other country of the former Soviet Union.
“In Minsk, they’re certainly not the dominant factor,” said Stuart Saffer, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for Belarus and Moldova. “There’s the Progressive community that has large-scale outreach and the modern Orthodox group,” referring to the country’s Reform movement and the Jewish Religious Union of Belarus.
Three years after the contentious departure of Iosef Gruzman, Chabad’s chief rabbi in Belarus, the fervently Orthodox organization is still struggling to assert itself in Belarus.
Gruzman left amid accusations of financial irregularities and erratic behavior. Neither the rabbi nor Chabad would comment on the accusations.
Just how much Chabad’s misfortunes in Belarus are the result of Gruzman’s leadership is unclear.
One possible explanation is offered by Rabbi Grisha Abramovich of the Association of Progressive Jewish Communities of Belarus, widely considered Minsk’s largest Jewish religious organization.
Abramovich says that Chabad has been unable to establish the type of relationship with the Belarusian government that it enjoys elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Unlike in Russia, for example, where President Vladimir Putin openly supports Chabad Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the ! Belarusi an government of President Alexander Lukashenko does not involve itself in the internal politics of the Jewish community, leaving it instead to a Darwinian struggle.
The main beneficiary of the leadership vacuum at Chabad has been the Reform community, which is uncommonly strong for a region with a predominantly Orthodox tradition.
The Progressive movement headed by Abramovich, a young native of Minsk whose calm eyes mask boundless energy, claims more than 3,000 adult members in Minsk and an additional 7,000 children enrolled in educational programs countrywide.
Chabad claims to have about 5,000 members, though the actual number of those participating in regular activities led by the group appears to be much smaller.
The Progressive community recently received a $1 million donation from the Breslauer family in Houston to build a new synagogue, an unprecedented windfall for Reform Jews in the former Soviet Union. Typically FSU Reform Jews struggle for funding and are often without a proper house of worship. Moscow, for example, still has no Reform synagogue.
Abramovich says Chabad’s problems are not a matter of mismanagement but approach.
“To be successful, you have to work with other Jewish organizations,” he said.
Indeed, Jewish life in Minsk is centered on a large complex funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, referred to as “the campus.” The campus, where U.S. and Israeli flags frame the flag of the Republic of Belarus, was designed to encourage pluralism and cooperation and is open to all denominations.
It contains the offices of every major Jewish organization in Belarus, from the student group Hillel to Hesed, the JDC’s welfare center. But Chabad is absent.
“I personally went around and offered space to everyone,” Saffer said. “But Rabbi Gruzman refused to set foot on the campus.”
In addition, unlike Chabad in Belarus, the Reform organization has always been united, said Leonid Levin, ! a renown ed architect and president of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, an umbrella group.
Levin believes that Chabad’s internal fighting over the synagogue ownership a battle that lasted for years smeared the reputation of the entire Jewish community in the eyes of the authorities.
Gruzman’s replacement, the French-born Rabbi Shneur Deutsch, has chosen to focus on the new synagogue in the two years he has been in Minsk.
From his spacious yet conspicuously deserted offices in central Minsk, Deutsch spoke about his organization’s approach and its recent achievements.
Having had some time to regroup, Chabad now has a day school serving 90 students in a new Minsk location. It will also run a summer camp in July, which about 250 children are expected to attend.
Asked why Chabad does not use the campus facilities, Deutsch said, “You have to understand, we have 20,000 Jewish people” in Belarus. “We can’t put every organization in the same place.”
Although Deutsch told JTA that the synagogue would be operational within five months, he denied a request to examine the grounds. Viewed from the street, it is difficult to imagine how the building will be able to meet that time frame.
Avraham Berkowitz, the Moscow-based executive director of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, defends his organization’s success in Belarus.
“We have six rabbis in Belarusian cities,” he said. “Show me another organization that has that.”
(JTA Moscow correspondent Lev Krichevsky contributed to this report.)