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Rabbi Hopes Military Chaplain Law in Russia Will Help Jewish Soldiers

July 18, 2006
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Rabbi Aaron Gurevich is doing something out of the ordinary for a Russian Jew: He’s helping to reintroduce a religious presence into the Russian military.

Although the details are still being hashed out, the law would create a religious affairs department within Russia’s military structure, the head of which would be directly appointed by the minister of defense.

The newly created department will represent the four religions recognized as official religions by Russia: Christianity – in essence the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

The law, spearheaded by the Russian Orthodox Church, has been in the works for almost a year.

Much like the chaplain service in the U.S. or Israeli militaries, this office would be under the control of the military, but it is unclear whether chaplains would be enlisted as active military personnel or as civilians cleared to work within the military.

A military chaplaincy has not existed in Russia since czarist times, when Jews who were drafted into the army were often subject to fierce pressure to convert.

“Many things have changed in Russia” since its transition from communism, but the military has largely remained unchanged and secretive,” Gurevich, a young, Russian-born fervently Orthodox rabbi in charge of two small Jewish communities on the outskirts of Moscow, told JTA.

According to Gurevich, a representative on behalf of Russia’s largest Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities, to Russia’s armed forces, the military has been experiencing what can best be described as a moral vacuum: Its absence has left military personnel nowhere to turn for moral or spiritual support.

The Chabad-led federation and other religious organizations are fighting for the right to conduct seminars, disseminate information, secure leave during religious holidays and carry out proper burial rites.

Gurevich believes the law will pass, although he admits that it is not without its critics.

“The first question I always get asked by journalists is, How many Jews are in the Russian army?” Gurevich told JTA. Unfortunately, statistics are hard to come by.

He could refer to a mid-1990s study showing that 4 percent of all military personnel said they were either Catholic or Jewish, but it is hardly considered reliable.

To Gurevich, the lack of concrete statistics is unnerving, as this weakens Jewish participation in the chaplain program: After all, if there are no Jews serving in the army, why bother with a Jewish chaplain service?

Then again, statistics on the number of Jews also vary widely.

The size of the Jewish population in Russia is currently estimated at anywhere between 200,000 and a half million people.

According to a 2005 assessment by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute of the Jewish Agency for Israel, there are about 235,000 Jews living in Russia.

“Every Russian citizen should have the right to practice their religion, even in the military,” Gurevich said. “Of course, compared to Russian Orthodox or Muslim servicemen, the number of Jews is nominal.”

But Gurevich believes there is enough anecdotal evidence about the Jewish presence in the Russian army to set up a chaplaincy.

“Without a doubt, there are Jewish people serving in the army and not just in the mandatory draft. We have evidence that many Jews are serving as officers and military professionals – technical personnel and the like,” Gurevich said.

But Jewish organizations do not have a legal basis to perform religious outreach in the military, he said.

According to Gurevich, the lack of a chaplain service is not solely a Jewish problem. At the moment, no religious organization or denomination has a legally defined right to a presence in military zones. Access is granted in an unregulated case-by-case and zone-by-zone basis.

By having a direct communication line with military structures, Gurevich also hopes the chaplain office could put pressure on the government to reinstate a draft exception for seminary students.

It is no secret that those who can buy their way out of the draft, while those who do not have sufficient financial means to do so are conscripted.

These are exactly the Jewish families that need the most help,” Gurevich told JTA.

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