How significant have been for the country the appeals the opponents of Jewish organizations have sent one after another to the Procurator's Office in the recent months? How has Russia changed in the eyes of Jews living both inside and outside Russia? These and other questions are treated in his interview to Interfax-Religion by one of the direct participants in and witnesses to the revival of Jewish life, Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar.
- Why did you choose Russia to work in? Was it difficult to get used to life in a new country? In your opinion, what are the positive and negative sides of you choice?
- As a student, I was offered the chance to visit the USSR several times. Officially, I made these visits on a tourist visa, but these visits were indeed aimed to help religious Jews and active members of this movement to revive Jewish life. Each time before going on these trips I visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, our spiritual leader, to receive his blessing. The Rebbe kept reminding us that helping Jews of the USSR, who were torn from their national roots, was the primary goal for each of us.
Then I got married and my daughter was soon born. It was in 1990 that the Jewish Community in Marina Roscha invited me to assume the office of a rabbi. I came to the Rebbe: he was so happy for me, insisting that I had to accept this invitation and go to Moscow. The only thing that I worried about was my visa. It was only for one year; asking for a longer term visa would be meaningless. But the Rebbe assured me and ancoureged me to go.
As I began doing my work, I understood what the Rebbe meant by this. It was obvious that local Jews sought spiritual nourishment even more than material or social assistance. This was the moment for me to realize the whole honor of this mission that G-d has set on me. The political situation rapidly changed, allowing me to stay in Russia forever.
Everyday life was difficult, but it wasn't so scary for me, because everybody lived this way. It was much more difficult to observe Jewish Law. For example, kosher food was practically unavailable; so I was put on quite a rigorous diet.
But it wasn't the easy life that we sought, but doing the will of G-d. So, to tell the truth, we didn't think whether or not it was an easy or a difficult task. It even seemed easy for us since we rejoiced at the results of our work. Today, when Jewish life has been established in Moscow and Russia, I realized how difficult it was at the beginning.
- What was Jewish life like at the time you began your work? What were its main challenges? What was the most difficult thing? What were the main obstacles?
- When I arrived, there was no Jewish community - nowhere. By the time I found anybody related to Jewish life, they seemed to be leaving Russia. Thank G-d, this is not true anymore: very few Jews leave Russia.
Everything we did in the initial years of our work was absolutely new - this was the main difficulty that we faced. This was new not only for the officials, but for Jews as well. Russian Jews, who have been living in a closed country, fully deprived of their national, cultural and spiritual background, were not able to understand how to conduct a free Jewish life. As we invited people to mark Jewish religious holidays, many would refuse, answering "Why are you attracting people's attention? This is dangerous! It will result in anti-Semitism!" Each communal activity required an immense effort.
It was more difficult to assure Jews that what we do is not a single act or the beginning of a tradition. As I approached businessmen asking for support, they would reply, "We'd gladly help, but what is it for? This is all in vain! They will emigrate anyways!" Now, I have to acknowledge that the most difficult task was to assure people to stay in Russia. We managed to stop this tendency as soon as the situation improved and our basic structures formed to provide for Jewish life in Russia.
- What are the results of your activity today? Could you recall the saddest and the most joyful moments? Was it difficult to overcome them? Who helped you?
- The attitude to Jewry has changed. This is the main result of our work. I heard the Rebbe say many times that there are many more Jews in Russia than any official census shows. This was supported by new obvious proof. Statistics show that a quarter of a million Jews reside in Russia, while the country's Jewish communities and organizations number many more active members than this. It was only a decade ago that we were hardly able to convince people to attend a Shabbat, let alone sending their child to a Jewish school. Today, this has even become fashionable to be proud of being Jewish, proud in their beliefs, culture and spirituality. People are happy to volunteer to help the community, not only in Moscow but in the regions too. There are dozens of Jewish schools, to which parents gladly send their children to study because they know about the full basic school program offered at these Jewish schools, in addition to Jewish language, culture, literature and religion. There are dozens of Jewish kindergartens and thousands of children spend their vacation at 'Gan Israel' summer camps.
Speaking about the happy momentsyou know, I have happy moments everyday. I am happy to see a Jew who feels secure and has known the joy of living a full Jewish life. There are two stories that I would like to tell in detail, the first of which dates back to 1991, when we got permission to celebrate Chanukah in the Kremlin Convention Palace. All 6,000 tickets were sold at once. Suddenly, TV and radio reported that the 'Pamyat' (Memory) Ogranization, which was quite popular at that time, called upon people to picket the Kremlin with signs reading "We will not allow Jews to step on the holy roads of the Kremlin".
Some voiced their doubt: will Jews dare come out for the holiday? On the eve of Chanukah, 10,000 people gathered instead of 6,000. Almost half of them had no tickets, hoping for a miracle. The 'Pamyat' Organization recruited about 100 persons, who soon got lost in the crowd of Jews. The Chanukah concert was an overwhelming success. It was a very important moment that showed that one can be Jewish in Russia and be proud of it, and that anti-Semitism is fated to remain a marginal phenomenon in Russia. By the way, since that incident the 'Pamyat' Organization has nearly been forgotten.
Another important event occurred in September 2000, when we built a Jewish Community Center in Moscow. Of course we knew that a personal message from the Russian President would follow. However, the day before the opening, an official message from the Kremlin reported that the President would personally attend the inauguration and appear before the audience. This presented not only respect for the Jewish people, but convincing proof that the authorities would never let anti-Semitism occur at the official level.
The saddest event happened in 1993, when anti-Semites set the Synagogue in Marina Roscha afire, as well as in 1996, when a bomb was planted in the new Synagogue. At these times, I even thought that this was all in vain, that it was meaningless to build a community here, if the surrounding population wanted to eliminate or drive us out. Now, thank G-d, we can surely say that we have left this period of aggressive anti-Semitism behind us. Some manifestations occur nowadays, but they are not as large-scale.
By the way, we can draw positive results from these dark feelings. When they tried to drive us out of Marina Roscha, we learned that the only correct way of responding to such provocations was to continue building. Those who hate us are not so numerous. Their aggression constitutes the hysterics of the weak. They become weaker as they see that their efforts to prevent the Jewish rebirth are strengthening the community and resulting in the appearance of new communal centers and Synagogues.
- What is the outlook of Judaism branches operating in Russia? In what way do you build relations with international Jewish organizations. How do you advance your relations with Israel and Russian-speaking Jews abroad?
- Let me answer each of these questions. I think it is not the proper time to talk about the perspectives of different branches of Judaism. At this point, Jews of Russia have to restore the Jewish tradition and culture that were lost. Restoring this means re-obtaining Jewish tradition the way it was before the Communist regime. In no circumstances can we impose our outlook on what a G-d-fearing Jew must be. I know that many Jews in Russia haven't regained religion yet, but for them, being Jewish means re-obtaining the Jewish spirit of their grandparents' generation. We have to give them back what they remember from their childhood, so that Jewish tradition never stops but is passed on to their children and grandchildren.
As for the second question, our relations with Israel and Jewish organization are undoubtedly warm. We are thankful for the support that was provided to us by our brothers abroad during the initial steps of the Jewish rebirth. Altogether[, Russian Jewry no longer need to be only protected, these relations have now entered a fundamentally new stage. It has become a weighty factor in the Jewish world.
Of course, we still face the problem of lack of information. Unfortunately, not many in the West have a clear image of what Russian Jewry is and what it means to live in Russia. For this reason, we try to attract as many foreign and Israeli Jewish delegations as possible to visit Russia. We know that they arrive with a certain prejudice regarding us. This is not their fault, but it is their disaster: it is hard for a person from abroad to understand how a society that faces crucial changes can change lives. With pleasure, I must admit that many see the situation differently when they get acquainted with Russian Jews and local authorities and see how we live here.
Regarding Russian-speaking Jews abroad: we formed the Congress of Russian-Speaking Jewry three years ago. This organization's first convention occurred in Moscow. The second convention took place in Jerusalem. This is a world-authoritative organization, which has offices in Moscow, Jerusalem, New York and Berlin, as well as in countries of the FSU, in European countries and in some American states having large Jewish communities. Of course, the Congress is now only beginning to unite Russian Jewry, through the results of its work are already obvious in the Jewish world. Not long ago, Russian Jews in Israel and in other Western countries faced the haughty attitude of local residents, as to natives of Third World countries. This image in rapidly changing today. The contribution of Russian Jewry with respect to the material and spiritual potential of communities is becoming more obvious, resulting in more respectful attitudes towards Russian Jews.
- How do Jews live in Russia today? Jews are returning to Russia. In your opinion, what are the reasons for this process? Will this tendency continue?
- Jews feel comfortable in Russia on the whole, just like other ethnicities residing in Russia. There is no other way: we are one family. In the 20th century, we survived disasters together, which other people cannot even imagine. We have experienced sorrow and joy together. One no longer feels any difficulties in conducting a Jewish lifestyle in Russia. In some regions, local authorities even provide their support. However, the Jewish rebirth is a very difficult procedure: too many things have been lost and destroyed during the atheistic regime and the Holocaust has made too heavy a mark on Russian Jewry.
Jews are now returning to Russia. This was partially prompted by economic reasons, and partially by cultural factors. Most Jews left Russia to escape from the Communists or from economic and social disasters that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, Russia's economic environment provides wide opportunities for energetic and well-educated persons. While Israel and many western countries represent a heavy challenge for a Russian emigrant wanting to find a job, this is also the case for the second generation of emigrants, who face difficulties because of low rates of economic growth. Some people have managed with financial difficulties abroad, but felt strange within their local cultural surroundings. Once Jews knew they can live a Jewish life freely in Russia, they felt a longing for their native towns, where they were born and where their relatives were buried.
Will this tendency continue? That is a difficult question. A single Jewish family considers many factors in making a final decision. I think that as soon as the economic situation in Israel improves, many of these emigrants will go back there again, although this depends on Russia's economic growth. Maybe they will live in both places - current relations between our countries allows for this. As for the 'cultural re-emigrant' - as long as there is freedom in Russia, including freedom to be Jewish, these persons will stay here, although their children, who wish to see the world, may go Israel or any other country. In general, the world is becoming open now. Let them live where they want, just feel good. In this case, people retain a positive attitude to the country where they were born and render their help in cases of emergency.
- What about anti-Semitism in Russia? What is the authority's attitude toward it? In your opinion, what will be the authority's activity in response to anti-Semitism?
- During the entire period of development of an independent Russia, we have never had any doubts that anti-Semitism is a marginal phenomenon in Russia, as well as in greater society. But as for politicians...
Recent events have proven that the only possible origin of this so-called 'infection' is political circles. There has been the notorious 'letter of 19', signed by members of the Duma representing the 'Rodina' Party and the 'KPRF' Party, as well as the 'letter of 500' and the strange reaction - or more accurately, lack of reaction - by the State Prosecutor's Office to these anti-Semitic provocations. Through such instances, one can clearly see how some political figures 'play the Jewish card' in order to get on TV and gain popularity.
Certainly, we are not afraid of them. Even the authors of these provocations didn't hope that Jewish organizations would be closed in today's Russia, as they demanded in their appeals. Society doesn't support anti-Semites either. The problem is that these marginal forces shout too loud, while the press broadcasts them throughout the world. This creates a very unpleasant tendency. First of all, this affects the image of Russia in the world, especially when the authorities provide no respond to this challenge. Secondly, this miserable fuss merely gets us all nervous, and not only Jews. I can understand the reaction of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaymiyev, who considered this anti-Semitic provocation an attempt to blow apart the principle of mutual respect that lies beneath the traditional multi-ethnic society of Russia. I wish that Moscow realized this, just as Kazan has.
- What are the relations between the Jewish Community and the Russian Orthodox Church? What do you think about relations with Muslims?
- The relations with Russia's traditional religions, and with the Russian Orthodox Church in first order, are very warm. Those who blame the Russian Orthodox Church for inciting anti-Semitism are no aware of the real situation or just wish to find a scapegoat. In reality, we have a common goal - to make it possible for Russia's ethnicities to re-obtain spirituality and moral laws, taken away by the aggressive atheists during their regime. We are actively cooperating within the Inter-Religious Council and applying our joint efforts to raise the popularity of this organization so that it makes its contribution to the rebirth of our country. One can see how close the statements of the Russian church and those of the Jewish community are.
Relations with the Muslim community are also very good. I think that there are very few countries where Christians, Jews and Muslims are not just making joint statements, but are cooperating in everyday life. Russia has a unique experience with respect to providing inter-religious peace. I think we can share it with the western world in many respects.
- You were struggling to cancel the Jackson-Vanick Amendment. Could you please tell us about this?
- We are continuing to seek the cancellation of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment. I will soon be in Washington and we will raise this issue once again. Unfortunately, there has been no progress so far. I believe the Americans have already forgotten what the background to this amendment was. 30 years ago, this amendment helped many Jews survive in jail, since many Jews escaped being killed in prisons for their religious thoughts and for their will to emigrate to Israel. But today, there is no reason to keep this amendment in force. We could have already said this many years ago, "The amendment has reached its goal. There is no discrimination against Jews in Russia anymore. It is time to throw away any discrimination in relations with Russia". I feel ashamed to know that now, some senators still want this amendment in place because of chicken exports or other economic interests.
- Tell us about your plans for the future - what are you going to do for the further advancement of Jewish life in Russia? What does this country mean for you?
- Of course, I will continue to build Jewish communities, Synagogues and communal centers in Russia's regions. I keep saying that we are at the beginning of our path; we must never relax until every Jew has the opportunity to associate with a community and to lead a full Jewish spiritual life. In future, I will be occupied with the creation of a Jewish museum. This place will be designed to allow every Jew to become closer to the traditions of his or her forefathers, as well as fostering youth in the spirit of tolerance towards all ethnicities residing in Russia.
What this country means for me?.... You see, I believe I can already say "our country" in reference to Russia instead of saying "this country". No, I wasn't born here, I have no Russian roots, but I came to settle here for the rest of my life. I have been living here for many years. Nearly all of my children were born here. So 'this country' has become 'my country'.