Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of the two claimants to the title of chief rabbi of Russia, is a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a man who has a significant impact and wields notable influence in his adopted country.
Born in Milan, Italy, Lazar moved to Russia in 1990 from the US at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to help revive Jewish life in the country following the severe repression of religion by the Communist regime for more than 70 years.
Lazar has a close relationship with Putin, and has frequently defended the Russian president, despite his highly controversial actions in the Ukraine, Crimea, Syria and beyond.
Indeed, it is this close relationship with Putin that, critics have said, has enabled the rise of Chabad in Russia and its strong position within Russian Jewish life.
Chabad now has dozens of centers in close to 50 cities in Russia, runs kindergartens and schools that are attended by thousands of Jewish children and operates religious services in far-flung parts of the country.
As chief rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, one of the two umbrella organizations of Jewish communities in Russia, Lazar has had a profound influence in helping reestablish Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, which now has a Jewish population of close to 180,000 – the sixth or seventh largest Jewish community in the world.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, another central figure in the Russian Jewish community, serves as Chief Rabbi of Moscow, founded and heads the Moscow Rabbinical Court of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and is a senior figure in the Congress of the Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations in Russia, the other major umbrella organization of Jewish communities in Russia.
Since 2011, Goldschmidt has also been serving as the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, a large Orthodox rabbinical alliance in Europe.
Goldschmidt arrived in Russia in 1989 and began playing an instrumental role in re-establishing Jewish life and communal structures for the Jewish community, including the establishment of schools, kindergartens, a rabbinical court, a burial society, kosher restaurants and soup kitchens.
In his role as president of the CER, Goldschmidt has focused on ensuring Jewish continuity in Europe, as well as fighting legislation across European countries against ritual slaughter and circumcision.
Under Goldschmidt, the CER has also engaged in interfaith dialogue and was a leading figure in authoring and gaining endorsement for the 2016 document “From Jerusalem to Rome,” the first Jewish theological response to the Catholic church’s Nostra Aetate, issued 51 years ago, which repudiated the notion of the collective guilt of the Jewish people for Jesus’s death.
The rabbi also established the Muslim Jewish Leadership Council to help create a dialogue between Europe’s Muslims and Jews and to renew respect and appreciation of religious identities.