RUSSIA: Rival Jewish Organisations Battle For Supremacy.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 24 July 2001

Whereas Berl Lazar's eclipse of Adolf Shayevich as chief rabbi now appears to be total (see separate KNS article), the battle for hegemony between the two Jewish leaders' religious organisations is still underway. And just as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle to becoming chief rabbi of his non-Russian citizenship has been removed, so the identification of Lazar's organisation with a minority strain of Judaism is proving no impediment to its bid to represent the majority of Russia's practising Jews. Since its foundation in late 1999, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (commonly known by its Russian acronym, FEOR) has gradually transformed itself from a wholly Chabad-Lubavitch body into a 'religious organisation of Orthodox Judaism.'

FEOR has undergone dramatic growth in its few years' existence, as it wages a campaign to revive Jewish life throughout Russia. 'This is the most dramatic growth in a Jewish community anywhere in the world,' executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (of which FEOR is the key member), Avrohom Berkowitz, told Keston News Service on 26 March, 'people are just coming out of the woodwork.' 'I have to give them credit, they're working like son-of-a-guns,' Russian Jewish Congress board member and editor of the International Jewish Gazette ('Mezhdunarodnaya Yevreiskaya Gazeta') Tankred Golenpolsky remarked to Keston on 4 April. 'I can only make comparisons with a paramilitary organisation - they go on vigils at 3 am.'

Claiming 80 member communities throughout Russia at the time of Lazar's election last June, by March this year, according to Berkowitz, FEOR had approximately 130. By the same month Shayevich's Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations (also known by its Russian acronym, KEROOR) was claiming 124 member communities - but at 197 the number of registered Jewish communities falls well short of the combined total. Either someone is exaggerating or, as Golenpolsky suggested, 'the wise ones might be taking from both sides'.

There certainly appears to be at least a modicum of 'disinformation', as head of the independent Jewish religious community in Petrozavodsk, Dmitri Tsvibel, pointed out to Keston on 11 April: FEOR's website claims his community to be a member, which it has never been. 'It is very likely that both organisations claim more member groups than in fact exist,' remarked Tsvibel, laughing. 'This would make good material for a comedy sketch.'

The major argument against whether the FEOR can fully represent the Jewish community is not its size, however, but its identity as a Chabad-Lubavitch (or Hassidic) organisation, while the majority of Russia's practising Jews are Orthodox. Significantly, this also impedes FEOR's membership of Russia's club of 'traditional' religions, since Orthodox Judaism is widely regarded as the traditional form of Judaism in Russia. Undeterred, FEOR stopped using the distinguishing term 'Hassid Khabad' in its title in early 2000. Today Berkowitz insists that the organisation is not only Hassidic: 'This is a misnomer. It is all-embracing. FEOR's spiritual leaders may be Hassidic rabbis but they do not aim to build up a Hassidic community here.' He even suggests that FEOR represents the traditional Jewish community of Russia, 'because we are trying to bring back what was here 100 years ago - when there weren't any labels such as Hassidism.'

Considering that the number of registered Hassidic communities in Russia is a mere four, FEOR has evidently - and apparently against Russia's law on religion - not been insisting that its member organisations define themselves as such. FEOR has achieved the final qualification to be considered the principal Jewish organisation in Russia. Around March this year, the Ministry of Justice official in charge of the registration of religious organisations, Viktor Korolyov, told Keston on 30 May, FEOR introduced an amendment to their charter renaming themselves 'Religious Organisation of Orthodox Judaism "Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia".'

Despite their praise for FEOR's work, however, not all of Keston's interviewees are convinced. 'FEOR is entirely Hassidic,' Golenpolsky claimed, 'and its aim is the overt spread of Hassidism.' On 19 May head of Kursk Jewish community 'Khesed Barukh', Igor Bukhman, told Keston 'without doubt I consider FEOR to be a Chabad organisation'.

Although Bukhman claimed that 'the situation in Moscow means nothing to us' when Keston spoke to him in Kursk, the two central Jewish organisations appear to be making a concerted effort to encourage provincial communities to join them. FEOR has made 'persistent attempts' to get the Kursk community to leave KEROOR and join them, Bukhman told Keston, 'but we're not going. If it weren't for the conflict we would have, but we decided that it was a political conflict and so not to join them.' Recently, he added, 'KEROOR have started to get a move on. In the past few months they gave us a little bit of money - before that nothing at all. There is now competition to stop groups going over to the other organisation.'

The Petrozavodsk community is currently in the very unusual situation of being entirely independent due to support from personal contacts abroad. The city is twinned with the German town of Tubingen, where a Lutheran pastor, Paul Zeller, raised 26,000 Marks for the Jews of Petrozavodsk, with which they have been able to buy otherwise prohibitively expensive items such as a Torah and computers.

The community is nevertheless currently considering joining FEOR, said Tsvibel, 'only because they will help us with money to build a synagogue'. However, he stressed that 'we don't want them dictating to us from Moscow what we should do'. When the community had preliminary discussions with FEOR about joining, said Tsvibel, 'they wanted us to adopt their charter, but we said we either join with ours or not at all, to which they agreed'.

Following Lazar's election in June last year, several observers predicted numerous provincial conflicts should FEOR start to claim historical Jewish property on the strength of their Ministry of Culture agreement. Director of KEROOR Zinovy Kogan could recall only one such instance, commenting, however, that 'there will be more.' In the instance concerned, according to a letter to KEROOR from its community in Omsk, the governor of Omsk region, Leonid Polezhayev, and the governor of Chukotka, Roman Abramovich (who is also president of the main FEOR synagogue in Moscow), called at the Omsk synagogue on 11 December 2000. The two governors asked who funded the KEROOR community, how much it received and what it would require 'for a normal existence,' wrote community leader Leonid Khait. On being given a sum the governors were reportedly astonished, and replied, 'we could double or triple that, it is no sum to us'.

According to Khait, the governors then asked about the synagogue's Torah, which had been reclaimed by a local museum after its term of lease had expired, as well as the building itself, which Khait was trying to get returned to the community. The Omsk governor then promised 'to resolve the problem of the Torah, and said not to go to court about the building as he would buy it for us for however much was asked'. At the end of the conversation, wrote Khait, Abramovich queried 'why our community is not a member of FEOR and recommended that we think about it'.

'This is the crudest interference on the part of the authorities,' commented Kogan to Keston on 8 June. 'It is as if two US governors went into a Catholic church and told the people there that they should become Protestant.' Although Khait initially appealed for 'some kind of measures to oppose Chabad', his community has since transferred to FEOR.

In Russia the practice of Judaism appears to be simply one activity - and a minority one at that - within the Jewish community. Golenpolsky confirmed that 'Russian Jews have been very remote from religion as it is. Both sides tend to pretend that they have converted to religion but after 70 years it is absolutely secular and the third generation knows nothing.' Although he pointed out that both central organisations were attempting to work with Jewish children - 'that's nice' - Golenpolsky thought this would introduce them only to Jewish culture and history, 'religion needs another 50 years.'

In Petrozavodsk, the five-year-old religious community of 25 is just one part of an entire Jewish centre conducting charitable and cultural activity, and the planned new synagogue, said Tsvibel, would reflect this by including a canteen, school and medical centre. In Kursk, Bukhman told Keston, there are up to 30 regularly practising Jews within the 200-strong community, which is also very active in the charitable and educational spheres.

FEOR's new, five-storey synagogue in the Marina Roshcha district of Moscow is no exception to this trend. In addition to its richly-built main worship hall, Berkowitz showed Keston a large community hall with dance floor and bar, library-cum-internet cafe and full-size sports hall: 'You wouldn't find all that in a Hassidic synagogue. It is all for the general Jewish community - 95 per cent of the lay leadership are secular people, the Hassidic community is actually very small.' The overwhelmingly secular interests of Russian Jews - including at the political level - are clearly shaping the revival of their religious life. (END)