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Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Group Wracked by Turmoil As Rabbi is Unable to Return to Russi

October 11, 2005
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A leading Russian Jewish organization has been rocked by unrest in its leadership. Several top members of the Russian Jewish Congress voted Oct. 6 to oust the group’s head, Vladimir Slutsker.

Slutsker, a banker and member of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of Parliament, refused to step down, saying that only the group’s presidium could vote him out.

The standoff is just the latest example of unrest in recent years surrounding the group, once the leading voice of Russian Jewry — and it calls into question who will speak for secular Russian Jews, who represent a majority of Russia’s Jewish community of at least 500,000 people.

Some leading RJC donors accused Slutsker of helping the Russian government recently deny Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, entry to the country, a charge Slutsker denies.

A meeting of the RJC presidium to address the matter is scheduled for Nov. 10.

Mikhail Fridman, a prominent business tycoon and the main donor to the RJC, suggested that Vyacheslav Kantor, a chemical magnate, should replace Slutsker. Kantor, who divides his time between Switzerland and Russia, is chairman of the European Jewish Congress’ board of governors.

Slutsker was preparing to circulate a letter to prominent members of the Jewish community this week, accusing those who are trying to remove him of usurping his power. He also is calling on members of the community to rally around him and form a new organization.

Some RJC lay leaders who attended the Oct. 6 meeting claimed Slutsker has provoked a controversy with the Moscow Jewish Religious Community, known by its Russian acronym MERO, over a piece of prized Moscow real estate.

The building, located just across the street from the Moscow Choral Synagogue, currently houses the RJC offices.

The building was purchased in the late 1990s by the RJC’s founder, Vladimir Goussinsky. The RJC then renovated the three-story building.

On paper, however, the 8,000 square-foot office building — now equipped with 24-hour video surveillance and a guarded parking lot — has a different owner. The property is registered under MERO’s ownership for a simple reason: RJC does not qualify for tax breaks because it is not registered as a religious entity.

Until recently the two groups never debated ownership. Since the founding of the RJC in 1996, MERO and its leaders, including one of Russia’s two chief rabbis Adolf Shayevich, forged a close partnership with the RJC, and their alliance grew stronger after 2000 when the two organizations allied in a struggle against a rival group, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, which elected its own chief rabbi.

The federation essentially has won the fight, emerging as the strongest and most active Russian Jewish group, particularly after Goussinsky was expelled from Russia in 2000 on charges of tax evasion spearheaded by the Kremlin.

Last month MERO took its case to a rabbinical court in Jerusalem, but no decision was made, apparently because the RJC failed to send representatives to the court.

It was after that meeting in Israel that Goldschmidt was denied entry back into Russia, which is an issue that has galvanized U.S. watchdogs of Jewish life in the region.

“We’re continuing our efforts to help Rabbi Goldschmidt to secure a visa to return to his family and community before Yom Kippur,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia. “We have appealed to the Russian government to resolve the technical questions as to why the visa was revoked in the first place, but have yet to receive a response to our appeal.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has promised to look into the matter.

Slutsker’s critics in Russia say the RJC effectively has withdrawn from Jewish communal and charity affairs and discontinued its support of some key projects it used to support.

RJC officials deny the accusation, saying that in 2005 the group raised more than $2 million — which still appears to be less than previous RJC campaigns raised. The group is believed to have spent about $70 million from 1996-2004.

Svyatoslav Voldman, the RJC’s executive vice president, told JTA that the group is experiencing some budgetary difficulties this year but continues to support some community projects.

Critics say that while the RJC stopped supporting some key Jewish projects, it spent money on others that shouldn’t be high priority, including upcoming RJC-sponsored celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah and an ice hockey tournament in Moscow earlier this year.

“RJC activities have been paralyzed for several months because of some controversies among its leading donors,” said Mikhail Chlenov, a longtime Russia Jewish leader and a member of the RJC’s presidium.

Both sides of the Slutsker debate say a further decline in the RJC’s efforts could harm the entire community.

“The very existence of RJC carries a high importance,” Chlenov said. “The congress has long been a symbol of secular Jewish life in Russia. If the RJC disappears from the scene, this can alienate many Jews, 90 percent of whom are not religious, from Jewish life.”

JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.

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