In the big picture of Russian Jewry, Penza is but a blip, a small industrial city located on the banks of the Sura River some 400 miles southeast of Moscow.
But the recent switch by the communityâ€™s leadership from one Jewish denomination to another — amid allegations of dirty tactics and possible illegal political activity — has thrust Penza into the center of the factional war that has weighed heavily on Jewish life in Russia over the last decade.
Despite being one of the founding members of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia — the umbrella body for non-Chasidic Orthodox Jewry in Russia known by its acronym, Keroor — Penza’s Jewish community had managed until mid-July to stay on the sidelines of that conflict.
That ended last month when community leaders decided to change their allegiance from Keroor to the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
In one sense, Penza is now one more in a long procession of falling dominoes, as the federation continues its consolidation of power in the former Soviet Union. With 197 affiliated communities in Russia alone, the Chabad-Lubavitch umbrella organization is by far the largest Jewish religious organization in the region. Its chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, is a friend of President Vladimir Putin.
Neither Keroor nor the federation could provide exact figures of the number of communities that have switched allegiance. But the trend is largely in one direction: to the Chabad-led federation.
What’s significant about Penza’s case is the direct involvement of a local official, in apparent violation of Russian law, in what is an internal Jewish matter. That has raised the concern that in a country commonly regarded as corrupt and inefficient, there may be little to stop local officials from seeking to bolster their position by aligning themselves with Putinâ€™s favored Jewish group, Chabad.
The story began on July 9 when Penzaâ€™s chief rabbi, Mikhail Tsesis, used an annual meeting of community leaders to broach the topic of changing allegiance to the Chabad group. The proposal came in the context of an ongoing feud with Keroor over funding for a new mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.
While Keroor said the funds for the mikvah were held up due to improper paperwork from Tsesis, the rabbi blamed Keroor, saying he did everything properly on his end. After the delivery of the first $17,000, the funding dried up, forcing Tsesis to take out a personal loan to complete the project.
â€œI felt like a fool,â€ Tsesis said. â€œI became the scapegoat.â€
After that incident, he said, the need for a change became clear.
The Chabad-led federation â€œis stronger financially and I think even ideologically for two reasons,â€ Tsesis said. â€œFirst of all, they are supported by the government and the president. Second, financially they are much, much stronger than Keroor and theyâ€™re more reliable.â€
Tsesis invited Alexander Yeletontsev, an official in the Penza regional administration, to speak in favor of the switch to Chabad at the Jewish community’s meeting. Yeletontsev did so, in a strongly worded speech, according to several participants.
â€œHe said that he was there under the authority of the governor, the Federal Council of the Penza region, and that they recommend that the community convert to the FJC,â€ said Vladimir Pliss, a Keroor spokesman who attended the meeting. â€œAlso, he mentioned that Abramovich helps the FJC as well, and that this is another reason why the community should convert.â€ Roman Abramovich is a powerful Jewish oligarch.
Thereâ€™s just one problem: Yeletontsevâ€™s remarks violated Russian law and were, according to his superiors, entirely false.
As in the United States, the Russian Constitution firmly enshrines the separation between church and state and bars government officials from favoring any religious group.
Both sides have speculated why Yeletontsev, a non-Jew with no apparent connection to the community, would take it upon himself to make apparently false statements in favor of the federation. Yeletontsev declined to speak with JTA.
Within days, Yeletontsevâ€™s boss apologized for the incident, and Keroor headquarters in Moscow sent out a scathing statement attacking his speech. For his part, the federation’s Moscow-based executive director, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, claimed to have heard about the speech only from this reporter.
Keroor Executive Vice President Leopold Kaimovsky, who was at the meeting, refused to speculate why a local government official might be concerned with a Jewish community’s religious affiliation, but he alluded to the federation’s willingness to use its close government connections — an accusation commonly leveled against the Chabad-led group.
Keroor isn’t the only Jewish religious group feeling Chabad’s pressure. The Union of Organizations for Modern Judaism in Russia, which represents Russia’s 17 Reform communities, also has strained relations with the federation.
Although the union claims it has not lost any communities to the federation — though it has lost several to Keroor — Russiaâ€™s chief Reform rabbi, Alexander Lyskovoi, has had his share of run-ins with the group. Two years ago in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East, the federation managed to take control of a new synagogue funded by a union donor, Lyskovoi said.
Lyskovoi laments the Reform movement’s relative lack of success in Russia, which he blames on the federationâ€™s dominance. In Ukraine and Belarus, he noted, where Chabad lacks governmental and financial resources, the Reform movement is significantly stronger.
â€œItâ€™s a catastrophic situation. I know we are very separated, but we cannot do anything because we are not rich enough and we cannot support them,â€ Lyskovoi said of Reform communities in Russia.
For its part, the federation says the Penza complaints are merely the grumblings of marginalized groups unhappy that their own mismanagement has pushed them to the sidelines of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.
In the case of Penza, federation spokesman Baruch Gorin says it appears to be a story about a lowly satrap seeking to take advantage of a corrupt system.
â€œI think it is difficult to comment on the initiatives of bureaucrats,â€ Gorin said. â€œHe probably had in his mind that the federation is a big organization which has good relations with the authorities and so on. Whether itâ€™s right or not right he doesnâ€™t know, and thereâ€™s nothing I can say about that.â€
â€œBelieve me, 99 percent of the things that local authorities do is not the best thing they might do,” Gorin said. “But Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™s the mission of Jewish organizations to fight them.â€