By Janice Arnold, Staff Reporter | CJN
Jewish life in Russia is flourishing and that “rebirth” can be attributed largely to President Vladimir Putin, said Chabad-Lubavitch’s head emissary to the Russian Federation.
“Today, it is very cool to be Jewish in Russia,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar. “Hundreds of thousands of Jews are reconnecting to their roots. Communities have been re-established across the country.…For the first time in hundreds of years, they are proud of their Jewishness.”
In Moscow, he said, “It’s almost like living in Israel.”
Rabbi Lazar, who has lived in Russia since 1990, spoke at the Montreal Torah Centre-Bais Menachem Chabad-Lubavitch (MTC) on Aug. 28, during his first official visit to Montreal. The public event was attended by close to 1,000 people who gave him an enthusiastic reception.
Rabbi Lazar, who was born in Italy in 1964 and received his higher education in New York, was among the first Chabad emissaries to work in Russia, after the fall of communism.
In 1999, soon after he became the acting prime minister, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia was created and Rabbi Lazar its chair. The Kremlin has recognized him as the country’s chief rabbi since then.
Rabbi Lazar was named a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a civic society that provides advice to government, when it was established in 2005. But, Rabbi Lazar declared, “I am not a politician.”
He did stress the sincerity of Putin’s zero tolerance of anti-Semitism and interest in the welfare of Jews. When he became president in 2000, anti-Semitism was rampant, Rabbi Lazar said. Putin told Rabbi Lazar he would do everything he could to encourage Jews to stay in the country.
Rabbi Lazar gives the most credit to the many Chabad emissaries – “the real soldiers going into the trenches” – who have worked tirelessly in every region of the country. Their first task is to identify those who are Jewish by halakhah. Some are not even aware they are Jewish, he said, due to decades of suppression.
The total number of Jews living in Russia is hard to determine, he said, but Chabad will not rest until each and every one of them is found.
As an example of the reach of Chabad, Rabbi Lazar noted that the first-ever mikveh in Birobidzhan, in eastern Russia, is set to open in a few weeks.
Before Rabbi Lazar spoke, a video was shown extolling “vibrant, thriving” Jewish life, both religious and cultural, with fine new synagogues, schools, community centres, kosher restaurants and museums. Needy Jews benefit from free meals and health care, and Jewish youngsters who are at risk or have special needs are cared for.
“Never before has Jewish culture been so widely celebrated,” Rabbi Lazar said of the improved perception of Jews among Russians.
He recounted a meeting that he attended at Putin’s invitation on the eve of Rosh Hashanah last year:
“He asked me, ‘Rabbi, what is the secret of the survival of the Jewish people … when so many stronger people have disappeared?’ I said, ‘Mr. president, how do you answer, as an outsider?’ He said, ‘Nations based on eternal values live in eternity.’ It’s true: the values of Torah, of love of our fellow Jew, of mitzvot, are what kept us alive.”
Rabbi Moshe New, the MTC’s spiritual leader, described the evening as “a celebration of the rebirth of Jewish life after 70 years of oppression and spiritual darkness.… I’m not exaggerating when I say Rabbi Lazar is among the most influential rabbis in the world today.”
Also speaking was Aubrey Sztern, who represented Montreal at an international conference of young professionals that was organized by Chabad in Moscow and St. Petersburg in June.
“Today, Jewish life in Russia should serve as a benchmark for Jewish communities around the world,” he said.
Israeli Consul General David Levy, who was previously posted in Riga, Latvia, said that, “Jewish life is thriving thanks to the wonderful work of Rabbi Lazar.”
Russian Consul General Yury Bedzhanyan said Rabbi Lazar is “well known, very respected and loved in the country.”
Rabbi Lazar did not take any questions.