By Joel Goldenberg | The Suburban
Life for Russia’s Jewish population is a “miracle” compared to what they experienced before the fall of Communism, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar told a large and rapt audience at the Montreal Torah Center in Hampstead last week.
Rabbi Lazar was introduced by the MTC’s Rabbi Moishe New, and preceded at the podium by Israeli Consul-General David Levy, who paid tribute to his own country’s Russian Jewish population; and Russian Consul-General Yury Bedzhanyan, who praised the Montreal Russian Jewish community.
Rabbi Lazar pointed out that during the Soviet era, Jews and other religious groups were prohibited from openly practicing their religion. The Rabbi recounted a recent meeting he had with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“I asked him, ‘what do you remember from those days [of Communism],” the Rabbi said. “He said ‘I remember a lot. My question is, do you remember who opened the doors?’ I said ‘yes we do, we are forever grateful for what you did in those days.’”
Rabbi Lazar said he first visited Russia as a young student in 1987, when the Soviet Union still existed.
“There was oppression, hardships, and the place wasn’t too inviting,” he explained. “There was nothing to eat, everything looked grey, it was dark and depressing. But one thing stood out — the special Russian Jews. Chassidim, who to keep yiddishkeit (the Jewish way of life) alive, were ready to do everything and anything.”
The Rabbi said he came to the USSR to teach and brought many books.
“When we went to customs, they took out all the books and asked what they were for, and I realized, without books, how are we going to teach? I came to my first class and I saw everyone had pictures of book pages. I realized in Russia, you can’t get any books, but you could get pictures. I met this special Jew… who used to stay up all night, taking pictures of pages of books, printed the pictures in his darkroom and give them out to people who wanted to learn.’ I was told that if he was caught, he would be in Siberia for life.’ And he did it day after day.”
The Rabbi also told of how briss (circumcision) ceremonies would be held by a store owner at his locale, and how there was a risk of discovery by the KGB each time. Those who wanted to use the store for the ceremony would have to be blindfolded and driven there.
“If the person was an informant, he would never be able to say where the briss happened. The owner risked his life every day…. When we celebrate the big changes happening in Russia, we wake up in the morning and say ‘it’s all thanks to these special Jews.’”
The Chief Rabbi says those changes are taking place under president Vladimir Putin.
“It’s almost like living in Israel,” Rabbi Lazar explained. “We have Kosher restaurants, probably many more than in Montreal. We have beautiful schools, a Jewish university, a Russian-Jewish museum, one of the largest in the world. There’s so much going on.”
The Chief Rabbi, who moved to Russia in 1990, also spoke of how virulent anti-Semitism existed as the USSR fell, and that then-leader Boris Yeltsin told him it was best to speak of Jews and violence against them as little as possible.
He then provided a contrast with today.
“I’m not a politician, and I’m not here to cheer for the [current] President of Russia, but when he became president, he came to the opening of our synagogue, the first time a President ever did so, and he said ‘I fully understand why Jews are leaving Russia, why would someone keep his family here, there’s no future. I’ll do whatever I can so that life for Russian Jews will change.’”
The Chief Rabbi said one sign of how life for Russian Jews did change stems from an incident in 2002, when a woman, Tatyana Sapunova, saw an anti-Semitic sign and sought to remove it, and was severely injured by a bomb hidden near the sign. She was successfully treated in Israel.
“A few days later, I was told [Putin] would like to have tea with me and Mrs. Sapunova…. The President thanked her for what she did, and he sent the message of how important it is to fight anti-Semitism. The part that is unknown is that as we were leaving his office, we were called back and told that the Mayor of Moscow was ordered by the President to meet with us — to give this woman a new apartment.”
The Chief Rabbi said Putin’s gesture “sent a message that this country will not tolerate any kind of hatred, and today we see the results… People used to be afraid to tell their own children they were Jewish.
“Today, there’s no question that it’s a miracle, what’s going on, the opportunities we have,” he explained.