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Across the Former Soviet Union Russian Shul Takeover Leads to Squabble in Jewish Community

April 12, 2005
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A recent takeover of a Moscow synagogue by Russia’s largest Jewish organization has again sparked tension within the country’s Jewish community. The conflict may torpedo any hope of a burgeoning alliance between the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia and the Russian Jewish Congress, whose new leader had announced an end to bitter infighting between the two groups.

In the center of the conflict is a three-story structure on the outskirts of Moscow. It is one of the city’s five synagogue buildings. The building is home to Darkei Shalom, a seven-year-old unaffiliated Orthodox congregation.

Two months ago, the Federation of Jewish Communities took over the building — and the congregation’s rabbi fought back.

The federation, which is headed by one of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, controls most of the country’s synagogues.

The synagogue was built by a Muslim philanthropist, Ryashid Bayazitov, who sought to create a “little Jerusalem” in the Russian capital by placing an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue in one compound.

When the synagogue was completed and offered free to Jewish organizations, none of the major groups in the community were interested in the financial burden associated with running a new synagogue in a remote neighborhood.

Rabbi David Karpov, a Moscow-born Chabadnik, accepted the offer. Since then, Karpov, now 48, has created a congregation from scratch. The synagogue now offers a variety of religious and social activities, attracting 50-60 people to its Saturday morning services.

Although he is a devoted follower of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Karpov never allied himself with Lazar, the politically connected rabbi who is Chabad’s chief emissary in the former Soviet Union.

Instead, Karpov affiliated with Chamah, a religious and social-welfare organization that runs several charitable and educational projects in Moscow.

Karpov also has been a longtime member of the presidium of the Russian Jewish Congress. The most powerful player in Russian Jewish life in the mid-1990s, the group has been at odds with the federation during the past several years.

Who’s responsible for the dispute between the federation and Karpov depends on whom you ask.

Bayazitov transferred the rights for the building to the federation. Karpov said it was Chabad’s plan to take over his congregation that made Bayazitov reconsider.

The federation says the issue of who should run the shul originally was raised late last year by Bayazitov, who, according to Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for the federation, told JTA he was unhappy with how the synagogue functioned.

“He got complaints that there were some marginal people in the synagogue, alcoholics, bums, that the synagogue was turned into a flophouse,” Gorin said, so he presented the federation with an ultimatum. “Either we establish order in the synagogue or else he closes the synagogue down.”

Karpov dismissed the accusations. “Everything is in order in the synagogue — to the extent one can talk about order in a synagogue.”

Karpov said that indeed each week some 30 people sleep over in the synagogue for Shabbat, but he said these are the members of the congregation who cannot travel on the Jewish day of rest, and not “some bums,” as Gorin suggested.

Bayazitov, a 40-year-old ethnic Tatar and a prominent businessman, was not available for comment.

Karpov said the only way for his congregation to have the issue resolved would be through a rabbinical court, but there is no rabbinical court in Russia whose ruling would be recognized by all the community’s factions.

Gorin and Karpov told JTA that Karpov was given an ultimatum — he could become a federation rabbi or he could leave the synagogue.

But Karpov said this condition is unacceptable.

“If I agree, as an employee of the FJC I might be removed from the synagogue at any moment,” he said. “I built this congregation and want to stay with the people who have their trust in me.” Karpov said his congregation was too weak to defend itself “unless someone stands up for us.”

But the federation’s executive director, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, denied the ultimatum was made. He said Karpov was asked only to follow federation guidelines, such as not allowing people to sleep in the synagogue.

“No synagogue in the world has people sleeping in it,” he told JTA, adding that apartments are being offered to house anyone who might need a place to sleep on Shabbat.

The conflict has awakened tensions between the two groups, even after the new leader of the RJC, Vladimir Slutsker, said the feud would end.

Last week, the RJC’s leadership called on the federation to resolve the conflict around the synagogue while retaining the shul’s independence.

In response, a spokesman for the federation accused the RJC of a biased approach to the conflict and said that by making a public statement on the issue, RJC has taken upon itself “responsibility for aggravating” the situation in the Jewish community.

This week, the RJC made a public statement on the issue, criticizing the Chabad federation over its handling of the crisis.

Gorin responded by calling RJC merely “one of the foundations in the Russian Jewish community, not even the largest one,” which “has no right to interfere in the issue.”

Earlier, a group of non-Chasidic Orthodox rabbis affiliated with KEROOR, a rival group, issued a statement that said the incident around Darkei Shalom was just another in a string of similar incidents. Each time, they charged, the federation takes over religious properties and entire congregations by using its close ties with local and federal authorities.

Berkowitz denied that the government plays any role in these affairs, and Gorin said his group sees nothing wrong about being the most successful player among Russian Jewish groups. He insisted that congregations themselves turn to the federation for support, not the other way around.

“If we can run Jewish organizations better than any other organizations, we should not be shy about that,” he said. “And those congregations that are becoming part of the FJC are attracted to us by the possibility of having a strong sponsor.”

In the meantime, Karpov seems to be gearing up for a new stage in the conflict. He said members of his congregation “are ready to take actions to defend their right to exist.” But, he added, he would prefer to resolve the issue peacefully.

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

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