MOSCOW (JTA) – The executive director of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union has left his post to create an independent office in Moscow, JTA has learned.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 32, was recruited by the chief Chabad rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, and the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities, Lev Leviev, to head up the organization’s fund-raising and outreach efforts in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Berkowitz resigned July 1 after serving for eight years.
He envisions that his new office, which has no official status and no name as yet, will develop projects to reach the most assimilated Russian Jews – those who never come to a synagogue or for Jewish holidays. This would encompass a majority of Russians in the former Soviet Union.
Berkowitz’s departure is a rare high-level shift within the tight-knit structure of the federation and Chabad. Lazar told JTA his group is seeking a new executive director, but it is too soon to tell what impact Berkowitz’s departure will have on the federation.
During Berkowitz’s tenure, the federation cultivated close ties with the Russian government and became the dominant force in establishing Jewish communities in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union, most noticably through a strategy of building community centers in far-flung cities.
“The fire is burning in my belly in a different direction,” Berkowitz told JTA. “I’m moving from an administrative post to setting up a creative office that doesn’t have the organizational structures and creative limitations.”
The office will be recognized by Chabad and the federation but will not receive funding from them unless the mission of the federation and Berkowitz align for a specific project, Berkowitz said. He said he would be seeking independent funding from donors and foundations, even the federation.
Berkowitz, a gregarious and voracious networker originally from Southfield, Mich., traveled often from his home office in Moscow to the United States, Israel and other countries on a raft of projects and fund-raising initiatives directed at pouring money into Jewish community development across the former Soviet Union.
Lazar said the federation believes it has completed the first phase of its development in Russia, a period in which Berkowitz’s openness was central to its mission.
The rabbi said he and Berokowitz agreed that for now, an administrative position within the federation was not suited for him. Lazar said the resignation was mutual and amicable.
“I believe his skills are more in creating and not running things on a day-to-day basis,” Lazar told JTA. “I think he felt and we felt that he, more or less, did what he could in this organization.”
The federation will begin searching for a new executive director, a position that involves extensive travel in the former Soviet Union. Lazar said the federation would probably look for a Russian-born or local rabbi to fill the position.
Lazar described his vision for Berkowitz’s new initiative as “off to the side and parallel” to the work of the federation. Both said Berkowitz would continue to work closely with Chabad in the former Soviet Union.
“To keep him within the box is not fair for him and not fair for Russian Jews,” Lazar said.
Berkowitz also serves as the federation’s rabbi for the expatriate community living in Moscow, providing Passover dinners, officiating at bar mitzvahs and other rabbinical services to diplomats, businessmen and members of the foreign media. He will remain in that position as a Chabad rabbi under Lazar’s leadership.
His wife, Leah, will continue to head the Ohr Avner Resource Center, a branch of the federation in Russia.