Russian Jewry is a miracle, says the country's football loving Chief Rabbi who has got the ear of Mr Putin

TALKS: Rabbi Lazar with President Putin last month

By Paul Harris

Rabbi Berel Lazar's eyes light up and he smiles with such beatific pleasure that his joy is palpable.

Russia's chief rabbi is showing me pictures on his iPad of Jewish life in Siberia; of thousands of Jews thronging the streets of one of the most inhospitable parts of the world where it's either freezing cold or just very cold as they celebrate Chanucah.

We're speaking in his Moscow office last Friday, the morning after his close ally President Vladimir Putin has been accused of involvement with the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane.

The word "miracle" recurs constantly and not without reason.

Only a quarter of a century ago, Soviet Jews were being persecuted for practising their religion and between 1987 and 1991 more than half a million left the country, mainly for Israel and America.

Today though Rabbi Lazar is positively kvelling about the position of Russian Jewry:

"There has never been a time in the past hundreds of years when it has been as good as it is today.

"Of course," he adds, "it has to get much better.

"But, historically, it's a unique situation where in Russia, the former Soviet Union, Jews are not only allowed to keep Yiddishkeit but there is strong support from the government and strong appreciation and understanding from the general population.

"It's become the style to be Jewish. It's most amazing when you see the young generation feel excited to join the Jewish community and be very involved."

Perhaps even more amazing is the lack of visible security outside even synagogues in Moscow.

But it's the same these days everywhere throughout the Russian capital, although Rabbi Lazar is quick to point out that he's not suggesting there's no antisemitism in Russia but that the level is "much, much lower" than elsewhere.

"People can walk dressed as Jews in the street at night," he stresses.

Today Russian Jewry numbers anything up to a million, depending upon which poll you accept.

Rabbi Lazar believes the number to be as high as 500,000, with 130,000 in Moscow.

He can only guess, since the majority of Jews don't feel the need to register.

"It faded out of their radar, their attention," he told me.

"To be Jewish is on the backburner, probably a photo album in their grandmother's house.

"There was a great amount of intermarriage, because [by marrying out] there was more of a chance they could stay alive.

"These people are so alienated from the community, they don't even try to make the connection.

"Every day, we see more and more people coming forward, wanting to find their roots.

"Every Russian you meet, there is a kind of connection with Jews."

And that is where Rabbi Lazar's real work is cut out.

He's a Lubavitcher through and through.

Sent by the Rebbe himself 24 years ago for an initial period of 12 months, Rabbi Lazar was then told "to stay put".

But the Milan-born 50-year-old says there's nowhere better he could dream of than to be in Moscow.

"My work is never finished," he says. "It's just beginning. The biggest challenge still facing me is to reach out to every Jew; find those Jews.

"There are a lot of Jews who don't feel it's relevant.

"Until now, it [being Jewish] was the worst thing that could happen in their lives.

"Our goal is to count all the 500,000 Jews. I believe it's possible."

When you consider that 1,000 attend Friday night services at the Chabad synagogue in Moscow, with as many as 500 turning up the following morning, it's pretty good going, bearing in mind that it's not the only shul in town.

There are actually seven synagogues and 23 batei hamedrash in Moscow, he points out proudly.

"There was so much assimilation," he laments. "The real job is to find Jews who are really Jewish.

"Our job is to make Judaism accessible, exciting, welcoming. For people to take such a step, their whole life changes.

"They were Russian until now. It's a new tradition, lifestyle. It's a big step.

"People differentiate between being Russian and Jewish. In Russia, being Jewish is a nationality."

He observes that previously passports would include the holder's father's name and nationality, which listed, among other choices, Russian, Azerbaijani or Jewish.

"It's really an identity issue," said Rabbi Lazar.

No-one had been connected with the Jewish community for more than 20 years, he insisted. For the vast majority, the link is as little as 10 years.

Older people from the generation that made up the community when he arrived in Russia were no longer around, he said.

"Anyone who wanted to keep anything left at the beginning of the '90s," he said.

"When we first came, our job was just helping people to learn the language, have a bris, move to Israel.

"This was our job in the first years, helping people to settle somewhere else.

"We thought there was no future for the community, but from the ashes suddenly it altogether sprung up."

And much of the "miracle" that is Russian Jewry today is down to Rabbi Lazar's close relationship with the controversial President Putin.

How did it happen? I ask.

"I don't know," retorts Rabbi Lazar. "We believe this is a miracle, that the President cares for the Jewish community and is prepared to fight antisemitism. It's a miracle."

He recalls approaching former President Mikhail Gorbachev and asking him to help safeguard Russian Jews.

His response: "Forget about it. Leave this issue out of the picture. We don't need to discuss that."

Rabbi Lazar went on: "In the Yeltsin years, Yeltsin was surely democratic and open and really had an open-minded vision of the whole world and Russia in general, and there were a lot of antisemitic attacks in those years.

"There was a lot of antisemitic rhetoric in political circles and the Press.

"It was really tough and our synagogue was firebombed once, bombed two more times, attacks on people on the street, stabbings.

"We had cemeteries and shuls destroyed. Whenever we turned to him, he said this question is taboo. Let's not talk about it, let's not mention it.

"All of a sudden, Putin came to a synagogue opening and then he came again and he said we're going to handle this issue upfront, zero tolerance of antisemitism.

"This was really his model and if anyone attacked Jews they would be punished severely."

At that time, a young boy came to a synagogue with a knife and wanted to stab people, recalled Rabbi Lazar.

"He didn't do anything, he tried, but he was given 17 years," he said.

"This was a strong message that antisemitism was something that was not going to be allowed in Russia."

Putin went further. He met the Jewish community openly, helped with the return of confiscated property, ensured that Jews could have a separate day for exams that fell on Shavuot and lit the menorah on Chanucah in the centre of Moscow.

"All these things were messages that Jews should feel comfortable, there's no need to leave, don't mess with the Jews. It's not something that the country is going to turn its eyes away from," said Rabbi Lazar.

"I think he believed that it was important for Russia to give a chance to the Jews because they were very influential around the country whether it's doctors, teachers, scientists, professors, businessmen, even in the political arena.

"Jews have always been part of this tapestry of Russia. There was a time they used to hide their Jewishness and at the first chance leave the country, and that was everybody's dream.

"But I think Russia realised that this was a huge brain drain, a huge potential of people being lost and you don't gain anything from having an antisemitic policy in the government.

"What does Russia gain? When Communism fell I think this was the first realisation that hurting Jews is not going to make the country any better.

"The policy during Soviet times was if anything goes wrong blame the Jews. So you had somebody to blame but you didn't solve the issue."

Was this relationship between Putin and the community brought about by Rabbi Lazar?

"I think by God," he replied. "I'm not sure. Anybody else would have done the same. I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Two weeks ago, during a meeting, the Chief Rabbi of Holland lamented the fact that his community felt threatened by antisemitism and attacks on shechita and circumcision because the Dutch government was not responding positively.

Putin responded strongly away from the cameras, insisting that the only reason the Jewish community had survived for so long and was so ancient was due to tradition, the synagogue, Jewish customs and keeping certain rituals.

Putin told Rabbi Lazar that it was due to the rabbis, brit milah and shechita. These were what had kept Jews together over the years.

He said, recalled Rabbi Lazar: "If you disallow this now you are actually bringing a new Holocaust. You will destroy the Jewish community by taking away what the nation is based on.

"This is the foundation of the Jewish people. I think this was a strong message. He said in Russia every custom the Jewish people have should be kept."

Why does Russia have two chief rabbis?

Rabbi Lazar explained that Rabbi Adolf Shayevich of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organisations was born to an irreligious Soviet family, studied in yeshiva and was appointed by the Soviet Union.

"When the Soviet Union fell apart, the community became more active. Until then rabbis were part of the system," said Rabbi Lazar.

I press him further about their relationship and he ventures that he was asked for three years by various communities in Russia to be Chief Rabbi. Eventually he accepted.

"There was supposed to be an understanding between Shayevich and me about what each would do.

"For different reasons, they made sure this didn't take place. Today we get on."

One suspects that Rabbi Lazar is being diplomatic and that Rabbi Shayevich and his supporters have their own agenda, but the former is keen to move on.

"To tell the truth," he continues, "the title 'chief rabbi' is meaningless. If people in the community feel a connection, you're their rabbi, if they don't, you're not.

"The position of Chief Rabbi here is the voice of the Jewish community, more in the eyes of the non-Jewish community."

Rabbi Lazar has his own hechsher, while his opposite number does not, which seems fairly telling in terms of influence.

All meat is glatt kosher and there are eight supervised restaurants and three stores under his jurisdiction.

Returning to Rabbi Shayevich's apparent lower profile, Rabbi Lazar explained: "He didn't have the support to expand. He had very few people helping. I have a great community around me, great rabbis, great teachers."

When Rabbi Lazar arrived on the scene, there were no Jewish schools, shuls or kashrut.

The Soviet regime had ensured that everything had closed.

Today Chabad has sent shluchim (emissaries) to 100 Russian communities.

That includes Siberia, but Rabbi Lazar is looking for more than the 10 rabbis already there to move to what is one of Russia's most inhospitable regions where temperatures can drop to -50C in winter.

There are tens of thousands of Jews in Siberia. Most were deported there by the Soviet regime and have remained. Others went to university there and stayed.

"It's a miracle," said Rabbi Lazar, who himself often visits the region.

"What's going on is amazing. Living in Russia is not easy, but the reward is huge."

Russian-born Chelsea Football Club owner, Roman Abramovich, is one of Chabad's biggest sponsors, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by Rabbi Lazar's invitation as our interview drew to a close.

"We're having a football match between two Chabad communities on Sunday to mark the end of the World Cup.

"You shouldn't only have to watch the game but to play the game." Was he himself a football fan? "I'm Italian-born. Juventus actually," he responds.

He did confess though that he hadn't had time to watch any of the World Cup, "but once Russia were out there was nothing left to watch".

But that's not all . . . only weeks before he had arranged an "amazing" hockey match between Chabad and a team of professional legends.

"I believe that after religion, sport is the best antidote for people wasting their lives," he says. "It is the best way to save these kids off the street, to keep them focussed on some sort of healthy style."

As we leave his office, there are two baalei teshuva (returnees to Judaism) from different generations waiting to see him.

One is now a Lubavitch rabbi who came from a completely irreligious background; the other used to observe the yahrzeit of his parents and attend shul only on Yom Kippur.

Today he produces and sponsors the community's Jewish calendar.

If anything summed up the ongoing work of Rabbi Berel Lazar, it was these two gentlemen who are part of the new Jewish Russia.

But more of them next week . . .

Rabbi Lazar, whose son Yisroel is studying at Manchester's Lubavitch Yeshiva, is planning to accept an invitation to speak in the city in the autumn.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph