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New Orthodox Group in Russia Hopes to Attract Israeli Rabbis

June 9, 2003
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Leaders of a new Orthodox rabbinical group are hoping to ensure an influx of Orthodox rabbis to Russia.

The group, the Federation of the Orthodox Jews of Russia, formed at a three-day congress held recently at a Moscow synagogue, hopes that increasing Jewish knowledge and lifestyle among Russia’s Jews will help them entice Israeli Orthodox rabbis, hit by the economic crisis at home, to come to Russia.

The organization adds to the already fractious mix of Jewish organizations in Russia today.

Reform Jews “and the Chabad are making great strides” in Russia, Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi and one of the group’s leaders, told JTA, but the Orthodox movement “is left behind.”

Of the few dozen rabbis living and working in Russia today, approximately three-quarters are believed to be representatives of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch organization, which operates through the umbrella Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

While most of the Reform congregations have learned to live without permanent rabbinical guidance — there are only two ordained Reform rabbis in the Russian Federation — the movement’s Russian arm, the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia, is credited with creating a viable network serving Reform Jews in some 30 Russian cities.

Goldschmidt and his supporters — who include a few dozen, mostly local-born Orthodox rabbis, among them Adolph Shayevich, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis — believe this is a good time to reach out to the largely assimilated Russian Jews with the message of traditional Jewish values.

Why today? The situation in Israel is the key, Goldschmidt explains.

“Because of a dire economic crisis in Israel, many Orthodox Jews who had long been relying on state support cannot find that support in Israel anymore,” he said.

“One of our goals has always been to find qualified people who could come and work” in Russia as rabbis, says the Swiss-born Goldschmidt, who has lived in Russia for nearly 15 years.

He says the Israeli crisis could turn into a blessing for Russian Jews.

“There are now hundreds of people, some 70 to 80 percent” of Israeli rabbinical students, “who are desperately looking for jobs,” he said.

Goldschmidt predicts an “exodus” of rabbinical graduates to countries with large Jewish communities, and he hopes to attract some of them to Russia.

The creation of the new rabbinical organization also is a result of an ongoing communal split between leaders representing Chabad Lubavitch Chasidim and the non-Chasidic Orthodox leadership. The success of Chabad — a fervently Orthodox group that has become synonymous with mainstream traditional Judaism in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union — is widely attributed to the movement’s funding and its ability to enlist dozens of young and energetic rabbis to work in Russian provinces where other groups have failed to establish a permanent rabbinical presence.

If it is successful in attracting new rabbis from Israel and elsewhere, the new group will break this pattern, Goldschmidt hopes.

“If in the past only the Lubavitchers were going off the beaten track, we now expect within three to four years to have more and more rabbis willing to come and work in various places,” he said.

The Lubavitch leadership was skeptical about the creation of a group they believe is just a new name for an existing organization.

A spokesperson for the Lubavitch-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia told a Moscow daily that “any organization can call itself what it wants, but this would not change its essence.”

The comment was a reference to the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Unions of Russia, an umbrella group that includes traditional Orthodox and Reform congregations. Most of those who attended the recent conference are affiliated with the congress.

“I would suggest that this organization look not for a new name but rather for new ways of work,” a press liaison for Berel Lazar, another Russian chief rabbi and the leader of the federation, told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper recently.

Zinovy Kogan, the congress’ chief executive and a Reform rabbi, said he didn’t think new rabbis recruited in Israel would make a big difference for Russian Jews. In fact, he urged Russian-born rabbis who have acquired Israeli passports to renew their Russian citizenship “to be more relevant to the communities they serve.”

But Goldschmidt believes Judaism in Russia faces a serious threat if it doesn’t come up with viable methods to reach out and teach Jewish values to masses of Russian Jews.

More that a decade after the fall of communism, “we are still using the same” outreach methods, he said.

“We do need good concerts of Jewish music, but we should be aware that this is not the best solution” for Jewish continuity in Russia, Goldschmidt told conference participants.

Another rabbi lamented the failure of the religious leadership to spark serious interest in Judaism among Russian Jews, even Jewish community leaders.

“There are hardly any” community leaders, “including our donors, who would say Kiddush or light Sabbath candles at home,” said the rabbi, who asked not to be identified.

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