By Boruch Shubert / JP Updates
Although Russia has historically not been considered the most hospitable place for Jews who wish to observe their religion – and the Russian Orthodox church is clearly the most dominant religious force in the country – current Russian President Vladimir Putin has become surprisingly close to the leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect who seek to strengthen Orthodox Judaism in Russia.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, a devotee of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, currently serves as Russia’s chief rabbi. Lazar appears frequently at Putin’s side at public events and is the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s most important Jewish organization. Lazar, who has been called “Putin’s Rabbi,” sits on the country’s public chamber, a government-appointed oversight committee. In return for such honor, Lazar publicly praises the Russian president as a friend of the Jews, and he insists that Russia is “one of the safest places for Jews in Europe.”
The Russian government under Putin has been a significant patron of Rabbi Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities, infusing it with funds that have enabled the restoring of dozens of synagogues and the building of Jewish community centers throughout the country. The Federation has also obtained government funding to develop the Jewish Museum, which opened in 2012 in Moscow.
As outlined by Slate, Chabad-Lubavitch has become the dominant force in Russian Jewish life. “Eighty percent of all synagogues, the rabbis are Chabad,” Rabbi Alexander Boroda, the organization’s chief spokesman, explained. “But the people who come, many are just young people who want to come and learn something about Judaism.”
Boroda dismissed the idea that there was something inappropriate about his organization’s close relationship with the Kremlin. “The chief rabbi is the representative of the Jewish tradition,” he explained. “It’s the Russian tradition, it’s not like America.”
Chabad has become so prominent in Russia partly through the help of some influential backers. The Uzbek–Israeli billionaire diamond magnate Lev Leviev was a strong early backer of the Federation. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire investor, governor, and owner of the Chelsea soccer team, has also been a supporter, donating $5 million to construct the Marina Roscha Synagogue.
David Shneer, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Denver, claims it also helps that Chabad is a “movement that cultivates ties with political leadership as part of a broader strategy to make a home wherever they happen to be.”
Even though most Russian Jews do not adhere to Orthodox practice, Shneer says it is no surprise that the Orthodox Chabad has become a leading factor in Russian Jewish life. “Chabad is evangelical Judaism,” he elaborated. “They bring Judaism to people at whatever level they’re at. If they want to light candles, they’ll show them how to light candles. If they want to keep kosher, they’ll show them how to keep kosher. They know that 95 percent of people who attend Chabad events are not at all religiously observant. But their point is to bring a certain kind of Judaism to as many Jews as possible.”
According to the Federation’s Boroda, that approach has brought tangible results. “More people have started going to synagogue,” he enthused. “We’re seeing a renaissance in Jewish life.”