The Delicate Balancing Act of Russia’s Chief Rabbi

In recent months, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar has declined media interviews and kept a low profile. That changed when he sat for an interview with Mishpacha Magazine, giving a glimpse into the challenges that Russian shluchim and rabbis are facing.

By Aryeh Erlich – Mishpacha Magazine

Just before my flight back to Israel from Moscow a few weeks ago, I finally sensed that tense feeling of war. It was around one-thirty a.m. and I went out for a stroll in Red Square. When I approached the Kremlin, which during my previous visits had been accessible to tourists, I discovered that it was surrounded by police barriers. Without thinking too much, I took out my phone and recorded a quick video clip with the Kremlin in the background.

“Here behind me,” I said, “you can see the Kremlin. In one of the buildings behind this wall sits President Putin, planning the next step in the war with Ukraine. After a day of visiting and talking to people in Russia, I can say that most of the Russian street supports Putin, but on the other hand, there is media censorship here.”

The words “Putin,” “Ukraine,” and “censorship” — understood in every language — were enough: Two stern-faced policemen hustled over to me. “The phone, please,” they barked. I thought of arguing, but Russia is not an ideal place to get into a tiff with law enforcement.

The Kremlin police demanded that I open the video gallery. “Delete it,” they pointed to the clip I had just taken. Then they made me go into the Recycle Bin and delete it there as well.

“Now, leave the area,” they ordered.

I did. What else could I do? I was just happy that this whole little incident had concluded with the erasure of the video and nothing worse.

On my way back, I passed Lubyakna Street and the massive historical KGB building. It spans half the street, and is illuminated with huge spotlights from every direction. Today, this is the headquarters of the Russian FSB — the modern incarnation of the KGB. I assumed, after that disquieting incident at the Kremlin, that all my steps were being watched, and from then until a few hours later when the plane lifted off from Domodedovo Airport, I felt a bit jittery. In retrospect, maybe that was good: It helped me better understand the situation of the Jews in Russia, who are living between the proverbial rock and hard place, davening for the welfare of their sovereign government, like Jews have been doing through the generations.

Until the dust settles, the Jews of Silence might prefer to remain just that.

Silence Is Golden

The previous afternoon, I met with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Duber Pinchas (Berel) Lazar, longtime leader of Russian Jewry, in his office in the Marina Roscha Jewish Center. It’s not my first visit here, yet each time I’m astounded by the breadth and strength of Rabbi Lazar’s rabbinic leadership.

True, he’s known to be well-connected with the upper echelons of power, but that’s actually part of the miracle of his rabbanus. When he arrived in 1992, there was no Jewish infrastructure whatsoever. With literally nothing in hand, he and his wife Chani rented an apartment where, for months, the only furniture was two mattresses and a baby crib. Three decades later, he sits at the helm of an empire he created from scratch — over 200 shluchim and dozens of thriving kehillos — making him one of the most successful shluchim in the entire world in both the vastness of his operation and the magnitude of connections he’s forged.

But he’s no figurehead rabbi — he’s as hands-on as you get. His desk is stacked with the seforim that are his constant companions. Next door is the beis din where the Rav sits daily on cases of lineage, conversions and all the complex aspects of Jewish family law that are part and parcel of the Russian Jewish landscape. Halachic queries come to him non-stop; he gives the shiur klali in Moscow’s yeshivah gedolah, and he’s the last word on communal issues as well.

Today, he’s sitting on a mountain of problems that have arisen for Russia’s Jews since the war began — the most pressing, perhaps, being the economic one. Russia is behind the iron curtain once again, but this time it’s an economic iron curtain. (When I wanted to use my credit card, I was told that, due to sanctions, international credit cards are not honored here.)

Rabbi Lazar has been put in a most awkward position due to the war. As a religious leader who is supposed to reassure his followers on the one hand and convey a moral position on the other — while still preserving his famed close ties with the Kremlin and with the president — he can only pray for siyata d’Shmaya in walking this complex tightrope.

For the most part, he’s adopted the wise advice of Chazal: Lo matzasi l’guf tov ela shtikah — silence is the best policy.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the chief rabbi of Russia has not opened his mouth on the subject in public. He doesn’t give media interviews, and even at community events he calls for people to be strong and resilient, but does not directly mention the war. This interview, in fact, is the end product of a calculated and cautious process: On the one hand, Rabbi Lazar wants to explain to the world the position of Russia’s Jews in these difficult times, and on the other hand, he doesn’t want to cause any damage to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Lazar may have brought the nickname “Putin’s rabbi” on himself, but he’s managed, through Vladimir Putin’s 22 years in power, to help create one of the greatest Jewish revivals in modern times, bringing Torah to people cut off from religious life during seven decades of communist rule. In whichever country Chabad shluchim find themselves, they stick to a basic neutrality principle: a willingness to work with government regimes as long as they don’t target Jews. This has placed Rabbi Lazar in a delicate balancing act, as he maintains the safety and access to religious life for the country’s several hundred thousand Jews.

As the prototypical shaliach, Rabbi Lazar cannot understand the logic that prompted some leaders to leave Russia upon the outbreak of the war. “What is the role of a rav at this time? That’s the question I keep asking myself,” he says.

As we speak, the media is reporting a Ukrainian blitz that pushed back Russia’s defense lines in Kharkiv, but Rav Lazar, seasoned as he is, just shrugs. “There are lots of false reports on both sides,” he says. “If I would believe every report, I wouldn’t be able to do anything all day but follow the war. Our job is to maneuver within our current reality and not to be bound by the media’s narrative of the day.”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Since the war broke out, caution is Rabbi Lazar’s byword. Even within the surprising openness of our conversation, the chief rabbi will not elaborate on any of the responses made. His sense of public responsibility is too great.

And Rabbi Lazar carries a responsibility unlike any other rav or Chabad shaliach. Any statement he makes about the war can impact all the Jews of Russia and Ukraine. Had he come out with a public statement against Putin — as many in the West expected him to do — the damage would have been immediate and inestimable to all of Russia’s communities. Had he expressed support for the war (so far, he’s the only religious leader in Russia who hasn’t), he would have made the Kremlin very happy — but would have caused tremendous damage to the Jewish communities in Ukraine.

And so, Rabbi Lazar continues to walk between the raindrops. He doesn’t support the war, nor does he condemn it. When asked, he speaks about the ideal of peace in general terms, and shares his view that we need to aspire for peace — but he never says who is responsible for the war and which party should be the peacemaker.

Throughout the decades, Rabbi Lazar’s relationship with Putin has remained a mystery. In their public meetings, the Russian president tends to shower the chief rabbi with words of appreciation; and each Erev Yom Tov, Putin sends him a letter with best wishes.

Putin is a sharp, curious leader who likes history, languages and varied cultures. He admires Rabbi Lazar as the representative of the Jewish people, and it is safe to assume that this admiration comes from having studied him in depth. Is it authentic or utilitarian? Either way, it doesn’t change the bottom line: Rabbi Lazar utilizes this connection to benefit the many thousands of Jews scattered throughout Russian territory and the hundreds of rabbanim and shluchim under his leadership.

It’s a carefully cultivated relationship that cannot be risked at this tense time. So, the rabbanim in Russia are treading gingerly, their strategy guided by Rabbi Lazar, together with Reb Sasha (Alexander) Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia.

Leaders of Jewish communities in Russia whom I spoke with told me that they are astounded at Rabbi Lazar’s ability to navigate and maneuver the Russian power network of complex interests. Rabbi Lazar did not learn civil sciences, did not take courses in diplomacy, and never served as an ambassador. His Russian, while fluent, still carries traces of American and Italian accents (he grew up in Italy with English-speaking parents). The secret of his success is his staunch identity as a Chabad shaliach with one overarching goal. As he tells fellow shluchim and community rabbanim: “Your job is to teach the Jews about Yiddishkeit and to help them materially and spiritually. Anyone who demands that you get involved in the war situation is trying to get you to miss the mark. That’s not your job.”

All Eyes on Ukraine

For Rabbi Lazar, there isn’t a single area in life that the war hasn’t touched. First and foremost are the Jews themselves.

“The Jews in Ukraine are literally brothers and sisters of the Jews here,” he says. Within the families of Russian and Ukrainain shluchim as well, there are many “mixed” marriages. “When the first Chabad shluchim came here 32 years ago, we were a group of three: Rav Moshe Moskowitz went to Kharkiv, Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky to Dneiper — both in today’s independent Ukraine — and I went to Moscow. Then, it was all one country.”

Another hard-hit realm is finances. With many of its deep-pocketed Russian philanthropists and supporters suddenly denied access to their wealth because of international sanctions, Chabad — and all privately-funded Jewish institutions — have taken a hard hit.

Yet even as the mosdos are feeling the squeeze, Rabbi Lazar is focusing forward. “The financial situation is very difficult, because most of the donors to the community have been sanctioned, their accounts frozen. They tell us, ‘We’d really want to help, but we can’t transfer the money.’ So our rabbanim and institution heads are confused: ‘Should we continue here and expand the activities of the mosdos — or should we cut back?’ We recently had a keness that put things into perspective. No, we’re not slowing down despite the difficulties, because today, even more than in the past, we have to help the Jews here.

“The most interesting phenomenon is the uptick in estranged Jews now seeking a closer relationship with the Jewish community. I would say that there are twice as many people as what we are used to. Suddenly, people are coming out of the woodwork, telling us, ‘I’m Jewish and I want to be part of the Jewish people.’”

One reason for the surging interest, Rabbi Lazar admits, is because everyone wants an Israeli passport. “But there’s another element as well,” he says. “They want some source of strength, they want a community at their side if something happens.”

Rabbi Lazar says he hasn’t spoken with Putin since the war began, initially because of a strict Covid protocol involving two prior weeks of isolation. And despite the rumors, he says he hasn’t received any instructions from the Kremlin regarding either taking a stand or keeping quiet.

“Among the members of the community, there were different opinions about what our position should be. Some supporters abroad wondered why we weren’t in the streets demonstrating against the military campaign. And then there were locals who told us, ‘You need to go out and show public support for the war policies.’ ”

Rabbi Lazar smiles. “You know the story about Hershele?” he asks. “Hershele would collect money for his bare necessities. One time, he approached a certain Yid who told him, ‘I can’t help you with money, but I can give you supper.’ After Hershele’s meal, he asked, ‘Can I sleep here?’ They agreed. Then came breakfast, lunch and supper. In the end, the couple realized that Hershele had no intention of going anywhere, and that they’d need to put him out.  So they devised a plan that they would fight with each other during supper, and when Hershele would take the side of one of them, the other would say, ‘What, you’re against me? Get out of the house!’

“So, the next night, the couple began to fight — while Hershele sat and ate, not taking any interest in their argument. The next day, the couple decided to ratchet up the intensity of the fight, but the response was the same. In the end, the husband asked Hershele, ‘So who’s right, me or my wife?’ And he answered, ‘I wasn’t here when you got married, I’m busy, I eat, you barely let me sleep here. Why should I get involved in these things?’

“That’s kind of what our reality is like,” Rabbi Lazar continues. “We don’t get involved. It makes no difference who is right. The question is what the Jewish community needs. We have a goal here: to bring Jews closer to Torah and mitzvos, to support the mosdos, to provide humanitarian aid.

“Of course, Jews are in favor of peace, but we don’t have a role in this story. It’s a wrestling match that has been going on for many years, but it’s not our game.”

It’s no secret that Rabbi Lazar and his colleagues maintain daily contact with rabbanim in Ukraine. “We’re doing all we can, using all our connections to protect Ukraine’s Jews as well as the many holy sites in Ukraine. Many family members of Russian shluchim are still in Ukraine, and we’re doing all we can to help them and to give them moral support as well as financial assistance.”

According to Rabbi Lazar, the Russian authorities are well aware of the deep, longstanding relationships between the Jewish communities of Russia and Ukraine, and don’t interpret support for Ukraine’s Jews as support for the Ukrainian national cause.

“We are very clear about that,” he says. “Politics and nationalist interests have nothing to do with us, and the Russian government knows this.”

Stay in Your Lane

In any case, Rabbi Lazar reiterates, he doesn’t trust the news. “Just like weapons, politics, and money are tools of influence, the news is also a tool. When I read about myself in the news, I see that people have no idea what I am and who I am. It’s just a way to influence people.”

Rabbi Lazar says that staying out of the political crosshairs is really an old story. “More than 20 years ago, there was a lot of pressure on me to relate to issues of democracy in Russia. ‘How can you stay quiet?’ people pressed me. ‘You’re the Rav in Russia, and you have to talk about it.’ There was so much pressure that I started to think, maybe they’re right.

“At around that time, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, and I met Eli Wiesel. I decided to ask him whether I should really be speaking up. He said, ‘It’s interesting that you ask. When I began my work, there were similar claims against me — people told me that I must not meet with Fidel Castro. What does a Jew do when he is facing such a dilemma? I went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and asked him the question. The Rebbe told me these words: “When it comes to issues of democracy, or questions of human rights, freedom and peace, there are lots of organizations dealing with them. Your job is doing what’s good for the Jews. If it relates to Jews, you need to engage in it, and if not — leave it to others.” The same principle holds true for you,’ Wiesel told me. ‘You have enough to do. You don’t need to be campaigning for democracy; deal with issues relating to Judaism.’ ”

Rabbi Lazar similarly feels that it was a mistake for Israel to publicly criticize Russia. “Israel has lots of things that Russia can help them with, and if it gets involved in this conflict, Russia may not help Israel anymore, Heaven forbid. So why get involved? Why should Israel have this need to wave the banner of democracy? There are enough countries busy with it.”

Perhaps the Kremlin is feeling some moral justification because the chief rabbinate in Russia hasn’t criticized the war?

Rabbi Lazar isn’t taking the bait. “Our position is clear: We are in favor of peace. We’re calling for peace and for an end to the bloodshed, from both sides.

“Some people assume that I’ve been given clear directives by the Kremlin on exactly what to say, but I can tell you unequivocally that there have been no directives, not a single request. We’re well-connected with the Kremlin on every other issue — the communities, issues relating to Jews, and subjects that affect the development of the mosdos — but not beyond that.”

But that very issue stretches across borders, and the pain of seeing once-flourishing communities abandoned, beautiful kehillos that have fallen apart, leaving nothing to come back to, is excruciating.

“Yes, this is an overwhelming tzaar,” Rabbi Lazar says. “Thirty years ago, the Ukraine region was a Jewish desert. Baruch Hashem, they built mosdos, shuls, kollelim, yeshivos, and communities — and now, most of the Jews have left. Even if this city or that city will be rebuilt and people do return, the question is whether the Jews will come back.

“From a spiritual standpoint, the current situation is a disaster for them, because the community builders in Ukraine are what kept them connected. They learned and grew stronger in their Yiddishkeit while they had that community base, and today they’re scattered all over the world. For an elderly person, starting anew in a place where he doesn’t know the language is simply tragic.”

Everyone seems to be talking about, and helping, the hundreds of thousands of Ukraine’s displaced Jews, but is anyone speaking about Russia’s Jews? According to Rabbi Lazar, although the stories aren’t necessarily heartbreaking, the Russian Jews haven’t been faring too well either.

“Before the war, we got a bit of outside financial help, but 80 percent of the donations to our institutions were actually from locals,” Rabbi Lazar notes. “There are businesspeople who, baruch Hashem, were very successful, but most of them are now under sanctions. Now that we don’t have donations, the entire community is in a difficult situation. And it’s not only the institutions — we also need money for humanitarian aid to needy families and the elderly. People are suffering, but yet, we continue to see miracles.

“Baruch Hashem until now we’ve managed to pay salaries on time, but we don’t know what will be in a month. Yet there are constant surprises. I recently got a call from an acquaintance in America who told me, ‘I’m sure the situation is difficult and we want to send a donation.’ Another person told me, ‘I was in Russia and I saw what’s happening. I think about you all the time.’ Without these Jews, we’d close the mosdos.”

Yet because of the sanctions, even those kinds of efforts can be tricky to navigate. “Well, everyone knows what kind of humanitarian work we do, so they help us, even the banks. Everyone knows that it’s important to support the community.”

A Brighter Future?

People say it’s business as usual in Russia, but when I walked down Moscow’s main Tverskaya Street, I felt the war catching up with me. This wide boulevard with its modern façade was the route that the czars of Russia traveled from St. Petersburg to the Kremlin. The route passed through the city of Tver, and thus the street’s name.

Right across from the Moscow Municipality in the Tverskaya Square — near the statue of Yuri Dolgorukiy, a Russian prince from the 12th century who is considered the founder of the city — I looked around and saw quite a number of stores that were locked, probably have been for months. Another result of the sanctions and international boycott. International brands such as H&M, Zara, McDonalds, and others have closed their Russian branches.

Given the financial distress, are there Jews who want to leave for a brighter future?

“Everyone wants an Israeli passport, but there’s a year’s wait to get an appointment. But I don’t believe they’re quite ready to leave,” says Rabbi Lazar.  “People want security, to have a passport if they need one. But we haven’t seen a wave of aliyah — there hasn’t been a decline in the number of community members.”

At least from my very limited experience, the mosdos seem to be going full-throttle; I even participated in a Siyum HaShas when I was there, held in Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim and made by the rosh yeshivah, Rav Moshe Lerman, Rav Lazar’s son-in-law.

And Rabbi Lazar wants to keep it that way.

“This is why we keep quiet, because whatever we say can endanger the Jews of Russia and Ukraine. I can go out tomorrow morning and make a statement to the media and nothing will happen to me — I’m a Russian citizen so I can’t be deported — but why would I do that? Why is this story about us?

“There are things we don’t need to get involved in, that are not good to be busy with, that are not good for us. When I close my eyes and think about my mission, what HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants, what halachah says, what the Rebbe who sent me here wants me to do, I’m sure that I don’t need to issue statements and cause harm. Show me one ruling from our long history in exile that when the nations of the world battle with one another, the Jews need to state an opinion.”

Rabbi Lazar has seen some very stormy years in his 32-year tenure, but this period is surely the most volatile. How has he been able to maneuver between his personal rock and hard place under the Kremlin’s nose, knowing he can’t afford a single misstep?

“We daven each day, ‘V’al t’vieni lo lidei nisayon velo lidei bizayon — Hashem, don’t bring me into a situation of test or shame.’ A Jew has free choice, and every minute, he has the choice to do the right thing. It isn’t always easy to know what that right thing is, though.

“I think the first step is to put your own ego aside, and not focus on who you are, what you think, and what will be best for you personally. Rather, consider the ratzon Hashem and the good of the Jews. And as I said, sometimes, it is very, very hard, because a human being always has personal interests. You have to put that aside and focus on what the halachah says, what da’as Torah says, what the Torah says in every situation.

“For us Chabad shluchim, of course, there are clear instructions from the Rebbe how we need to act in such situations, and we try not to err. It’s not easy. We consult with rabbanim and with other people who are neutral and try to do the right thing. But ultimately, we need siyata d’Shmaya to ensure that we don’t cause any Jews to suffer during these volatile times.”

Force Doesn’t Work

For over three decades, Chabad has been locked in a faceoff with the Russian government over possession of a massive and priceless seforim collection that had been the private possession of the Chabad rebbes before the two world wars. Moscow declares that the collection of thousands of rare published volumes and manuscripts, currently held in Russia’s national Lenin Library, is part of Russia’s cultural heritage. Lubavitcher activists, under instruction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zy”a, want to see the collection reunited with the world-famous Chabad archive maintained at the chassidus’s headquarters in Crown Heights.

After years in court and Russia being slapped with international fines, as an interim solution to dial down tensions, President Putin decided in 2013 to transfer the books to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which is attached to the shul and community center headed by Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar — yet keeping the area where the books are kept as a part of the state library.

The Russians did sweeten the pie, though. While they never returned the books, they did scan more than 4,500 books in the Schneerson Collection, making them accessible to everyone with the click of a mouse. However, none of the tens of thousands of manuscripts, letters, documents and photographs were handed over to the museum.

With the US government announcing this summer that it would hunt down and seize Russian assets in an effort to sanction Russia for invading Ukraine, no one was happier than the Chabad chassidus, because it seemed the perfect way to leverage Russia to give back the priceless collection.

But while many Chabad chassidim are thrilled with this development and finally see a lien on Russian assets as a light at the end of the tunnel of the ongoing litigation, one person who isn’t so happy about it is Rabbi Lazar himself.

“I don’t support this tactic,” he says, although he clarifies that “I dream every day about what can be done so that the seforim be taken out, and if it would be possible to do more, I would go above and beyond. But the Rebbe expressed his opinion a number of times that it’s impossible to deal with the Russians by force — it doesn’t work. We’re seeing that clearly every day. If you want to attain something from the Russians, find common language. Don’t use heavy-handed tactics with them.”

And yet, the Rebbe sent delegations all the time.

“He sent delegations to speak, to negotiate. I have inside knowledge about how much the Rebbe wanted a way to find an in, but he never agreed to take a heavy-handed approach. The Rebbe said, ‘In the end they will give us the seforim with a smile.’ He wanted them to understand that it was for their benefit. The Rebbe spoke out against demonstrations, because these demonstrations lead nowhere.”

Does this mean you don’t support the activists who are trying to force the Russian hand by seizing assets?

“Look, we’ve been active here in Russia for over three decades, and there wasn’t a single thing that we could not arrange in a polite and peaceful manner. When you show the authorities that helping us is for their benefit, it brings results, but when you try to show them who is stronger and tell them what to do, it just backfires. When they’re forced, they just dig in their heels. The Russian honor, pride, security and strength doesn’t let them capitulate on anything.”

On the other hand, in America they say that the fact that you agreed to transfer the seforim to a museum cleansed the Russian conscience.

“Putin didn’t give them over, and he didn’t ask us. We never agreed to the arrangement.  He just transferred the location of the books from the state library to our museum. These are still considered their seforim, assets that, unfortunately for now, are in their hands. Just like they managed the library at the previous location, now they are managing it at another address, and it’s not in my control, not my decision, and no one asked me. When they informed me of the move, it was a done deal.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 930)

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