The controversy stirred up by Russian President Vladimir Putin – who in a recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly suggested that Jews might be responsible for election meddling in America – apparently did not raise as much ire among Russian Jews as it did elsewhere in the Jewish world.
Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis who is currently in Israel, told a packed auditorium in Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai on Monday night that Putin is not remotely antisemitic, and that he was the first Russian president to attend the opening of a synagogue, or any Jewish event for that matter.
In a conversation with Steve Linde, editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report, Lazar contended that Putin had listed several options and Jews had been included – not because of antisemitism, but because in Russia Jews are considered to be very clever and powerful, and this simply confirmed that belief.
Born in Italy, educated in America and living in Russia for the past 30 years with his wife and 14 children, Lazar has developed a close relationship with Putin, who he says was the first Russian leader to treat Jews as equals and to fight antisemitism. Putin has also encouraged the opening of more synagogues.
Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev had been friendly to the Jews, but according to Lazar, Putin was the first to say that Jews had the same rights as anyone else.
After Putin had attended the dedication of a new synagogue, Lazar was approached by an elderly lady who told him that all her life she had walked with her head down, because she had been afraid to admit she was Jewish. But she said that, if Putin could come to a synagogue, she could now walk proudly with her head up.
Most people regard the huge exodus after the fall of the Iron Curtain as the modern miracle of Russian Jewry, but Lazar sees another miracle – the very fact that people who 20 years ago did not know that they were Jewish are today observant and raising their children as observant Jews, or at least as proud Jews, unashamed and unafraid. This to him is an ongoing miracle.
Many wear kippot (skullcaps) or a Star of David in the street, not because they are religious, he said, but because they openly identify as Jews – whereas for decades Jews suffered discrimination, “even before Communism.”
When asked how many Jews there are in Russia today, Lazar said that it was impossible to pinpoint a figure, because there are still so many people who don’t know that they’re Jewish – “and it’s our job to find them.”
A recent survey put the number at 1.5 million, but Lazar is certain that there are many more.
THERE ARE 11 Jewish prayer rooms in Russian prisons, and Lazar does the rounds of all of the them. In one he discovered that the two most senior people in authority were Jews, though neither had been aware of this until his visit. They were actually excited to discover that it was not only an ancestor who was Jewish, but that they themselves were halachically Jewish.
One of the beauties of Jewish life in Russia according to the rabbi is that there are no labels causing distinctions between one Jew and another. Everyone is part of one happy family, regardless of the level of their observance. They’re simply all Jews.
Putin really loves Israel, said Lazar. The first time he came he was deputy mayor of what was then Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. He had been so impressed with what he saw that when he went back to Russia, he enthused his whole family, eventually bringing them on an exploratory tour of Israel that covered the country from Metulla to Eilat.
People have accused Chabad of providing so many services for Russian Jews that they feel no desire to come and live in Israel. One such person was prime minister Ariel Sharon, who summoned Lazar to a meeting in his office and screamed at him, telling him to close all Jewish schools and synagogues so that Russian Jews would make aliya. Sharon tried to impress on Lazar that Israel needed the demographic increase in order to avert a lower population figure than that of the Arab communities in the country.
The conversation went back and forth with neither convincing the other. Lazar had tried to convince Sharon that Russian Jews could not be forced to migrate to Israel, and if Jewish services were taken away from them they would simply assimilate and be lost to the Jewish people forever.
Some years later an Israeli ambassador told him that Chabad was right.
“We believe the best place for a Jew is Israel,” said Lazar, “but he has to feel Jewish first.”
Israeli visitors to Russia like to attend synagogue services where they can see for themselves the evolution of Russian Jewry. These same Israelis do not go to synagogue in Israel, said the rabbi, because they would be labeled as religious. But in Russia they go to synagogue simply because they are Jews.
ACCORDING TO LAZAR, the warm friendship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin was seen in the chief rabbi’s office some eighteen years ago. Putin was coming to a Hanukka candle lighting event, and Lazar, on learning that Netanyahu was in Moscow, contacted him and invited him to the same event, telling him that he would meet someone very interesting. The two men spent two hours talking to each other in the privacy of Lazar’s office, and have been talking to each other frequently ever since.
While claiming not to know much about Russia’s external politics, Lazar said that Moscow briefs Israel daily on the situation in Syria. He added that Putin has said many times that Syria with Assad is better for Israel than Syria without him, because without Assad the terrorists would take over.
He could not explain Russia’s involvement with Iran, but surmised that it was Russia’s way of finding a viable solution to the Iranian problem.
“Iran is an enemy to Iran itself, and many in the Arab world feel that Iran is going in the wrong direction,” said Lazar, who believes that Moscow is conducting a dialogue with Tehran in order to make it understand that a solution has to be found to overcome the current situation.
For all the freedom that Jews are enjoying in Russia, like the projected opening in September of a Jewish university – as well as all of the influence that Chabad has in high places – several Chabad rabbis have been deported over the past few years, the most recent being Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, an American working in Sochi, who was charged last year with being a danger to national security.
When Lazar tried to find out what crime he had committed, the answer was that if he put such a question to the CIA or the Mossad, he wouldn’t receive an answer – therefore he couldn’t expect one from the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
One explanation offered by Lazar was that the Russians want their own Russian-born and Russian-trained rabbis. “They don’t want imports from abroad.””