Three months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin gathered the high and mighty of the land for a ceremonial proclamation of the “return” of the Crimean Peninsula to sovereign Russian territory, in the wake of the military invasion of neighboring Ukraine, to a chorus of protest from the international community.
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In the ornate Kremlin hall, among the admirers and sycophants cheering Putin and wearing his black hat and coat, was Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief shaliach (emissary) of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect to Russia and the man known, due to his closeness to Putin, as the chief rabbi of that country.
The Italian-born and Brooklyn-educated Lazar, 49, has lived for nearly a quarter of a century in Moscow, where he was sent by the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one of the very last envoys appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe before he slipped into a coma from which he never emerged.
Those were also the dying days of the Soviet empire and Lazar set about building with tenacity and determination, some say through intimidation of rivals and obsequiousness to Putin, the largest and most influential Jewish organization in that part of the world.
On the orders of the Rebbe, Chabad - which was born in Russia - was coming home.
Lazar smiles indulgently when interviewers ask him whether he’s “Putin’s rabbi” and says the president doesn’t need a rabbi. In the years since Lazar has become not only one of the most prominent religious figures in Russia, but the leader of a massive network of envoys in dozens of cities across Russia, where most of them are the only face of organized Jewish life.
Participating in Putin’s political events is the norm for Lazar. Indeed, he also took part in the opening ceremony of the scandalously wasteful Sochi Olympic Games earlier this year (walking to a hotel as the event took place after Shabbat began). He is always prepared to defend Putin before the international media, glorifying the “stability” he brought back to Russia following the chaos of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the way the president has supported the local Jewish community.
Lazar and his men repudiate any claim that Russia is today a nondemocratic dictatorship. “In America anyone can say nasty things to Jews,” says one Chabad shaliach, “so that’s democracy. In Russia, anyone who says anything anti-Semitic can be arrested or sued.”
Lazar has been facing accusations for year that he has used his relationship with Putin to push aside other rabbis who threatened his position. This doesn’t seem to matter anymore: He has delivered the most surprising comeback in the Jewish world in a generation.
Chabad’s return to Russia is an anomaly in Jewish history. While other religious communities escaped Eastern Europe, for fear of the Nazis or the Bolsheviks, and reestablished themselves in Israel or the United States, at the most returning to visit graves of holy rabbis – Chabad, which was ruthlessly persecuted first by the czarist secret police and then by the communists, has returned home.
Eighty-seven years since the sixth Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, was deported from the Soviet Union in 1927 (after his death sentence was commuted, due to international pressure), Chabad has established itself as the largest and most influential Jewish organization in Putin’s Russia. For 80 years Chabad was seen as a very American and Israeli movement, but its Russian roots never disappeared. They were preserved in the stories of the “miraculous” escape of the Rebbes from their persecutors, the prodigal quantities of vodka drunken at Chabad events (uncharacteristically for ultra-Orthodox Jews), and the Russian melodies in their songs.
Three main factors have contributed to Chabad’s breakthrough in Russia and most of the other former Soviet states. The first is Putin’s support, embodied in his closeness to Lazar and in the fact that every Chabad shaliach is immediately recognized as his city’s chief rabbi and receives the backing of the local authorities.
The second factor has been the involvement of Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, who in the 1980s received a blessing from the Rebbe for success in his business and was told to support Jews in every place. Leviev is president of the Chabad-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities, one of a number of organizations competing to represent the Jews of Russia. He supported the envoys financially, and founded and funded the Or Avner network of Jewish schools and kindergartens, which is managed by Chabad members and provides hundreds of jobs in the movement.
Six years ago, however, Leviev’s business empire was hit badly by the global recession and he was forced to reduce his support; there was fear for Chabad’s prospects. This is where the third factor comes in.
A new shaliach arrives at a city in the Former Soviet Union, nearly always lacking any proper communal infrastructure. He receives a small start-up sum from the center back in Brooklyn, but very soon must stand on his own two feet and rely on whatever funds he can raise. The method is invariably to gain the trust of local Jews, especially the wealthy and well-connected ones among them, despite the fact that they are very rarely religiously observant or particularly connected to Judaism. These people are awarded honorary titles and usually contribute both funds and local sway.
The shaliach thus builds and expands his local Jewish center, which always includes a synagogue, mikveh (ritual bath), kosher kitchen which can supply hundreds of meals, and eventually stage by stage a kindergarten and school. In many case the shaliach lives with his family at the center, or on the premises at all hours with his wife and children who work with him. There are no office hours and the job is for life. While other Jewish organizations find it difficult to hire and employ, for any period of time, qualified representatives in the distant regions of the FSU – for those in Chabad, being sent to a remote posting is seen as a lucrative challenge.
During the Rebbe’s last years, there were less than 10 envoys in the entire Soviet Union, Berel Lazar among them. Twenty years after his death there are hundreds of them – envoys, teachers, ritual slaughterers, circumcisers, and young interns from Chabad yeshivas in Israel and the United States, learning what it will be like when they themselves are sent out as a full-fledged shaliach. Some of them are descendants of old Chabad families, young men whose great-grandparents were persecuted back in Russia for their faith.
In some places, with the help of local oligarchs, Chabad's envoys have built up empires. In Moscow, the Marina Roscha center includes Lazar’s ornate office and a concert hall and sports center, in addition to the synagogue and areas for other religious functions.
In Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky rules over the massive Menorah Center, which includes three hotels, a banquet hall and kosher shops and restaurants built by local oligarchs (Chabad's representatives in Ukraine are not under the control of Rabbi Lazar).
Not that the envoys have it easy. Some of them work in areas that have become war zones recently in southeast Ukraine, and have stayed on to continue operating religious services while gun battles rage in the streets around them between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in cities like Mariuopol, Luhansk and Donetsk. Often the envoys traverse the checkpoints to reach remote communities and carry out circumcisions and other rituals. On their way they are careful not to express views on the conflict, which has thrust the rabbis into the power struggle between Ukraine’s government and the Chabad’s Russian patron, Putin.