Russia’s foreign-born rabbis are falling away from Putin's inner circle

The Russian government is finding ways of deporting religious leaders it cannot control, says Semyon Dovzhik

July 13, 2018 07:13

It is a difficult time to be a foreign rabbi in Russia.

For several years the government has been working to deport believers and missionaries from Christian denominations, but there are clear signs this programme is extending to non-Russian rabbis too.

Asher Krichevsky, the Israeli-born rabbi for the Siberian town of Omsk, was last month given a deportation order for “threatening national security and the constitutional order of Russia.”

An official for his synagogue told AFP: “Neither the rabbi nor his lawyer were informed of the exact nature of the charge because the case was immediately classified as secret.”

It made Rabbi Krichevsky the ninth rabbi to be forced to leave the country in the last ten years.

Others included Yosef Hersonsky who had established a growing, popular community in Moscow appealing to sections of the community’s middle class, and Ari Edelkopf, who was based in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and served the local Jewish community as well as visitors during the Winter Olympic Games in the city in 2014.

Both Chabad rabbis denied the charges against them and appealed to the courts, but their pleas were refused and they were forced to leave Russia.

It raised many eyebrows among Jewish observers because Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, was known to enjoy a close relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President made a point of attending Chabad Russia events and takes every opportunity to stress the unprecedented growth of the country’s Jewish community.

Relations have not fully broken down, but Rabbi Lazar’s influence is in decline and one thing is certain: Chabad in Russia has undergone a significant change.

Fundraising is one reason for this. Western sanctions and Russia’s political climate has forced many wealthy Jewish Russians to relocate to London, Geneva and Tel Aviv — including a few prominent donors to Chabad.

Another reason is the rivalry between the Chief Rabbi and Alexander Boroda, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia.

Rabbi Boroda has extensive connections within Putin’s administration, the security services and the elite of the Russian business community. While Rabbi Lazar is a spiritual leader and concentrates on Jewish communal issues, if there is an urgent need to cry gevalt, it will likely be Rabbi Boroda who picks up the phone.

Russia is increasingly a climate where every foreign community leader who cannot be easily controlled is perceived as a potential threat. Rabbi Lazar is a foreigner speaking imperfect Russian.

Alexander Boroda, meanwhile, is perceived as “one of us”, fluent in the language of the security service and business elite.

These are the very people who represent Mr Putin’s inner circle.

Correction (23 July): An earlier version of this article described Rabbi Lazar as a "foreign citizen speaking imperfect Russian". In fact, Rabbi Lazar holds Russian citizenship.

July 13, 2018 07:13

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