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Around the Jewish World Formation of New Russian Groups Shows Split in Jewish Community

October 22, 2002
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The creation of two new Russian Jewish umbrella groups is underscoring divisions within the community.

The new organizations of Jewish professionals were announced as attempts to overcome the two-year-old feud between the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia and the Russian Jewish Congress.

But it appears likely that the Conference of Leaders of Jewish Organizations of Russia, and the Association of Public Jewish Organizations of Russia, set up last week by the federation and the RJC, respectively, will cater to their respective parent groups.

Some believe that the formation of the groups could indicate a reversal of fortune, with the RJC improving its battered political relations with the Kremlin.

The RJC admits that a conference forming its new group it had been planning for December was moved up after the federation announced it would set up a similar group.

The most important thing “was to show that the claims for monopoly in the community are doomed,” said Evgenia Lvova, a Jewish community leader from St. Petersburg who backed the RJC-sponsored event.

Valery Engel, a federation official, said his group’s goal was not to gain a monopoly, but to unite religious and secular Jews from all over Russia under one roof.

Each group invited leaders from the other to attend its founding conference, but the invitations were declined — which came as no surprise given the level of tension between Russian Jewry’s two major organizations.

The RJC and the federation have been at odds for the past two years as they struggle for the soul of Russian Jewry. The split between the groups became public in the summer of 2000 when the federation elected its leader, Rabbi Berel Lazar, the long-time chief Lubavitch emissary in the former Soviet Union, as Russia’s new chief rabbi. The RJC supported Adolph Shayevich, who has long served in that capacity with the support of the group and its then-president, Vladimir Goussinsky, a Russian media mogul who was arrested in connection with embezzlement charges that were later dropped.

Both men now serve as competing chief rabbis.

The federation, which unlike the RJC is active in most Russian communities, has one of the largest budgets of all Jewish groups working in the former Soviet Union.

The group’s focus has been religious revival and education. Most of the Jewish day schools in the area are part of the federation’s network, which operates under the auspices of the Lubavitch movement.

The RJC raises most of its funds from the Russian business community and is mostly seen as a charity fund that gives grants to various Jewish causes, including welfare, education, youth and cultural activities.

The federation has appeared much stronger than its rival for the past two years, enjoying the full backing of the Kremlin, which recognizes Lazar as Russia’s sole chief Jewish authority.

Local Jewish communities suffer most from the divisions.

“There are cases where people are being denied a free subscription for a community newspaper or social services when it comes to light that they go to a different synagogue or receive some services from a competing group,” said the federation’s Engel.

RJC leaders who gathered at the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue elected Mikhail Fridman as president of the new organization.

Fridman, 38, is one of the most successful Russian business leaders. The head of the Alfa Group, which plays a leading role in Russian banking, oil and communication industries, Fridman is not a newcomer to the organized Jewish community. In 1995 he helped Goussinsky set up the RJC and has served as one of the group’s vice presidents ever since.

But unlike Goussinsky and some other business leaders, Fridman has never spoken out on political issues and is believed to have good relations with the Kremlin.

The group started by the federation, the Association of Public Jewish Organizations, also elected a well-known figure as its president. The choice of Arkady Vainer, the author of best-selling detective stories, appears to be politically neutral.

The new groups say they have different agendas.

The RJC gathered 50 leaders from Moscow and St. Petersburg, about half representing various national umbrella groups, to set up an organization of Jewish professionals, RJC President Yevgeny Satanovsky said.

“The RJC has traditionally revolved around the business community and well-known Jewish personalities, but the Jewish professionals have so far been excluded from decision-making,” he said.

Satanovsky said the new Conference of Leaders of Jewish Organizations — he was elected its executive vice president — would try to model itself after the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, speaking out on issues of concern for the community and acting as its representative vis-a-vis the government, Israel and Western Jewish organizations.

The federation-sponsored Association of Public Jewish Organizations, in turn, said its group was more representative of Russian Jewry, having assembled some 100 representatives from across Russia.

Igor Savelzon, a secular leader of the Jewish community in Orenburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, said he did not always agree with the federation but joined the new group in hopes that it would bring more funding to his cash-strapped organization, the Jewish Cultural Center.

“I’m here because my organization is poor,” he said.

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