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Across the Former Soviet Union Winds of Change Sweep Russian Jewry As Kabbalist Takes over a Leading

October 26, 2004
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A leadership change in a top Russian Jewish organization is likely to dramatically change the balance of power in the Russian Jewish community — and is raising questions about the degree of Kremlin involvement in Jewish communal affairs. Leading donors to the Russian Jewish Congress approved the choice of Vladimir Slutsker as president at an Oct. 18 closed-door meeting. He was expected to be installed Wednesday after a vote by the group’s board.

A banker, enthusiast of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah and a member of the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, Slutsker, 48, will replace Yevgeny Satanovsky, a longtime Jewish activist who has been RJC president since 2001.

Slutsker is little known to the public. He joined the RJC leadership only this month by making a financial contribution of $250,000, the minimum required to join the RJC’s board.

Since its founding in 1996, the RJC has raised more than $70 million from domestic donors to support various Jewish projects. The group also aspires to represent Russian Jewry on political and social issues before the government, but its role has diminished in recent years.

Though Slutsker’s previous involvement in public Jewish causes is not widely known, sources in the Federation of Jewish Communities, a rival organization run by Chabad that has become the largest Jewish group in Russia, said Slutsker was one of the biggest local donors to federation projects, including construction of the group’s prime facility in Moscow, the Marina Roscha Synagogue and community center.

Slutsker was unavailable for comment this week. His appointment appears to be the result of a combination of factors.

Satanovsky has become unpopular with many RJC leaders and supporters, mostly because of his leadership style — what one critic has described to JTA as his inability to make friends.

Just a month and a half ago, Satanovsky was re-elected as RJC president despite fierce criticism by some of the group’s lay leaders, who made it clear they would try to replace him.

Some critics objected to the fact that under Satanovsky, the RJC stopped supporting religious programs and saw its presence in the Russian provinces wither under pressure from state officials who favored the federation.

Most recently, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee backed out of its 2-year-old agreement to build a multimillion-dollar Jewish community center in Moscow together with the RJC and a few other partners.

In a statement released earlier this month, the JDC cited unexpected growth in project costs. But some observers believe the JDC was unhappy with Satanovsky, who oversaw the project.

For his part, Satanovsky told JTA he cared about the organization so he had agreed to help restructure it for the sake of its future.

According to a preliminary agreement between Slutsker and main RJC donors, Satanovsky may remain within the RJC executive structure to focus on issues of Jewish college education and scientific research, areas of longstanding personal interest.

At the same time, the selection of Slutsker could indicate that the Kremlin has managed to defeat the remaining traces of independence among Jewish community organizations in Russia, although the federation steadfastly maintains that it is independent.

Since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 1999, he and his administration have given preferential treatment to the federation because the Kremlin wants the Jewish community to be represented by a single voice as part of its desire to control all political parties and religious communities, analysts believe.

The latest evidence of the Chabad-Putin alliance came Monday, when Putin praised the federation for its activities on behalf of Russian Jewry. In a message delivered by a Kremlin representative to delegates of the group’s biannual conference, the Russian president said, “The activities of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia contributes to acquainting Russian Jews with national culture, serves the noble goals of reviving spiritual and moral values, of preserving the centuries-old traditions of mutual respect, neighborly relations and tolerance.”

The federation became the Kremlin’s favored Jewish entity in part because the RJC was headed by Vladimir Goussinsky, an influential Jewish media mogul who was outspoken in his criticism of Putin.

Goussinsky was later expelled from Russia on Kremlin-spearheaded charges of tax evasion.

To overcome this stigma of being linked to Goussinsky, Satanovsky lately had been trying to please the Kremlin, though he never succeeded at that, said Yevgeniya Albats, a liberal journalist and member of the RJC leadership who was one of the most vocal opponents of Satanovsky within the group.

She was referring to the fact that under Satanovsky, the RJC — like most other local Jewish organizations — avoided criticizing the authorities over the arrest of Jewish oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky or over Putin’s recent initiative to revamp Russia’s electoral system, which was criticized by democracy advocates.

For its part, Chabad has used the Kremlin stamp of approval to help spread Judaism throughout Russia.

Slutsker is believed to be close to Vladimir Ressin, the Jewish deputy mayor of Moscow, who has sought to overcome the existing split between the RJC and the federation.

Last year, Ressin came out with an initiative to create a single Jewish religious community structure to replace the federation and the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities, an umbrella group backed by the RJC.

Leaders of the RJC-allied group criticized the initiative, which they feared would pave the way for all Russian Jewish religious communities to come under control of the Lubavitch-run federation. Some believe that would serve Kremlin interests by creating a more unified Jewish community that would be easier to control.

The initiative was dropped quickly.

It is believed that Slutsker would bring the two groups together, a belief given evidence Monday when Slutsker spoke to the federation.

The era of infighting within the Russian Jewish community is over, he said, addressing delegates to the biannual conference of the federation. “The main task on today’s agenda is the fight against terrorism. To succeed in this fight, it is necessary that all Jewish organizations are united.”

The RJC always has had poor relations with the federation, but under Satanovsky they grew especially hostile, federation spokesman Borukh Gorin said.

Gorin said he hoped the appointment of Slutsker, whom he described as a longtime personal friend, would improve relations between the two groups.

Gorin also implied Ressin was involved in picking Slutsker as the RJC leader.

“I hope that under Slutsker, RJC will pursue a policy of peace that will become even more tangible with the growth of influence of Mr. Ressin,” he said.

While the reasons behind the RJC shakeup appear transparent to many, the group’s prospects — and the future balance of power within Russian Jewry — remain an open question, given the fact that Slutsker himself is an unknown quantity for many in the community.

“Satanovsky lacked some basic leadership qualities, and his replacement was absolutely necessary,” Albats said. “But I don’t know who Slutsker is.”

Another prominent Jewish community figure, who had been sharply critical of Satanovsky, said he had some doubts about Slutsker as well.

Tankred Golenpolsky, founder of the International Jewish Gazette, an independent Moscow weekly, said he was running an article headlined, “Who is Mr. Slutsker?”

Golenpolsky said he did not believe Slutsker was a pawn in a Kremlin game, though he did expect him to seek more cooperation with the federation, which Satanovsky had opposed.

“The community is one, the leaders could be different, but those who suffer from the split are not the leaders but the ordinary Jews,” Golenpolsky said.

Though he doesn’t know Slutsker well, he approves of the choice, Golenpolsky said.

“He is a nice person, and he has a tefillin and a tallit,” Golenpolsky said, referring to the fact that Slutsker, unlike Satanovsky, is regarded as a religiously observant.

Yet Slutsker’s religiosity is raising even more questions as to where the RJC might head under its new president.

Slutsker is known to have two passions, Kabbalah and karate. He had been one of the most ardent followers and biggest donors to Kabbalah guru Michael Laitman, a Russian-born Israeli rabbi who has spearheaded a recent revival of Jewish mysticism among Russian Jews.

Slutsker parted ways with Laitman some time ago, reportedly over financial matters, and became a Kabbalah lecturer himself, leading a group in Moscow that is especially popular with members of the Russian business elite.

Slusker is keen on talking about Kabbalah in public meetings, and already has indicated that as RJC president he would primarily focus on the group’s religious agenda and its P.R. campaign.

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