Don’t Accuse Rabbis in Russia of Supporting the War

Bloodshed in Ukraine has placed Jewish leaders in a difficult position, but our overarching mission is to remain with our communities.

By , chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia’s Public Council.
Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar attends a ceremony marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow on Jan. 27, 2023.
Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar attends a ceremony marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow on Jan. 27, 2023.
Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar attends a ceremony marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow on Jan. 27, 2023. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, Foreign Policy published a piece by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, formerly of Moscow, attacking the rabbis and Jewish community leaders represented by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR). Having chosen to abandon his own Moscow congregation, Goldschmidt appears to be besmirching the rabbis of Russia who’ve committed to remaining at their posts, even, or especially, during these difficult times.

Last month, Foreign Policy published a piece by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, formerly of Moscow, attacking the rabbis and Jewish community leaders represented by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR). Having chosen to abandon his own Moscow congregation, Goldschmidt appears to be besmirching the rabbis of Russia who’ve committed to remaining at their posts, even, or especially, during these difficult times.

Today, more than 200 Chabad rabbis—the vast majority of the country’s Jewish religious leaders—live and work throughout Russia under the auspices of FEOR, Russia’s largest Jewish umbrella organization. Drawing inspiration from their heroic communist-era Hasidic predecessors—who under incomparably worse circumstances were nearly alone in dedicating, and (at times) sacrificing, their lives for the preservation of Jewish life in the Soviet Union—these rabbis vow to remain with their communities from Moscow to Birobidzhan.

FEOR is not a political body; we are a religious, educational, and humanitarian organization that unites 180 Jewish communities and has single-handedly built Russia’s vibrant Jewish infrastructure. Back in 1999, Chabad rabbis and community leaders were forced to establish FEOR precisely because Goldschmidt and the organizations he led—the Russian Jewish Congress and Congress of the Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations in Russia —were pursuing their own political agendas. We protested that this was dangerous for the future of Russian Jewry.

When our concerns were ignored, a broad base of Jewish communities from across Russia gathered and voted to create a new organization called FEOR. We knew then that the Jewish community could not be beholden to political interests and subjected to political tides; therefore, FEOR has never had an oligarch sit at the helm of the organization.

Jewish life in Russia under our leadership has flourished exponentially in the last 24 years.

As one might surmise, remaining a nonpolitical religious organization in Russia is not always easy. Organizations representing other religious denominations here routinely comment on political and geopolitical matters, expecting Jews to do the same. We have always refused, explaining both here and abroad that our work is to foster Jewish life and care for our communities. We will not allow anything to endanger that.

Russia is not the West, and living and working here necessitates understanding that. Of course, the Jewish people must always remain a beacon of light, especially when our own brothers and sisters are in danger, as they are in Ukraine, where Chabad has similarly built Jewish life in the last three decades.

That’s why Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar has loudly and publicly called for the immediate cessation of bloodshed in Ukraine. “Every day we receive information from our brethren, from rabbis in Ukraine, that blood is being spilled, that people are dying—including children!” Lazar said from Russia on March 2, 2022. “We feel the pain of our brothers, no matter what faith they belong to. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue; no believer should, nor can they, reconcile themselves with this.”

Ignoring this and other public statements Lazar and FEOR have made, Goldschmidt—who remained silent regarding Ukraine while he decided whether to quit his congregation in Russia or not—insinuates that an interview FEOR President Rabbi Alexander Boroda gave Interfax amounted to him and, by extension, FEOR supporting the war. This is categorically untrue.

Goldschmidt notes that prior to the war, authorities had exiled nearly a dozen rabbis; this is true, though he omits that all of them were FEOR rabbis and Chabad followers.

The fact is that circumstances in Russia have become more difficult. Today, there are fewer international flights, Russia is cut off from much of the international banking system, and a certain tension fills the air. Thankfully, antisemitism is not one of our many challenges—and when it does arise, it is FEOR that confronts it.

It was Lazar’s vigorous protest against antisemitic remarks made by Aleksey Pavlov, assistant secretary of the Russian Security Council, that led to an immediate apology from the security council and Pavlov’s dismissal. Goldschmidt’s false portrayal of today’s Russia as broadly antisemitic is, in itself, endangering Russian Jewry.

We, the rabbis of Russia, know that things are challenging here. Nevertheless, we have chosen to remain here with our people. Our communities are relying on us—how could a rabbi even dream of leaving? For this commitment, we’ve received the support of leading Jewish figures, including Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who compared a spiritual leader abandoning his community to a captain jumping ship.

“Today you, the rabbis of Russia, are going through a challenging time,” former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky wrote in support of the Chabad rabbis of FEOR in September 2022. Most vital, “is your work to strengthen the Jewish community, to save the connection of every Jewish family with our tradition, our people and our country in the most difficult conditions.”

Goldschmidt’s decision to quit his community was his to make, but his international media tour is self-serving and harms the real-life people he left behind. As for us, the rabbis of Russia who endure, our future is bound with that of the Jews of Russia, whose well-being has always been our one and only mission.

Boruch Gorin is chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia’s Public Council, chair of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, and editor in chief of the Knizhniki publishing house.

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