Russia wants to close the Jewish Agency - how have Russian Jews reacted?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Rabbi Boruch Gorin says the Agency was not targeted because it’s Jewish or Israeli, but because it's a body with overseas influences.

 A view shows the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow (photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)
A view shows the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow
(photo credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)

“I believe that people feel the steps against the Jewish Agency are symbolic and are, in their eyes, steps toward the Iron Curtain,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday evening in a phone interview from Russia. Gorin, who heads the Public Relations Department of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, was speaking about the Russian Justice Ministry’s recent decision to liquidate the agency’s Moscow operations. 

“Is it right or not?” Gorin asked about the theory that Russia is again becoming a closed country. “Nobody knows. But psychologically, people see that as the picture of the closing of the country [progresses], there is political pressure and economical pressure. People in Russia feel very unstable at the moment. Many people have lost their work and have other problems. So all together, they are also afraid that tomorrow they won’t be able to go on aliyah.” 

“Is it right or not? Nobody knows. But psychologically, people see that as the picture of the closing of the country [progresses], there is political pressure and economical pressure. People in Russia feel very unstable at the moment. Many people have lost their work and have other problems. So all together, they are also afraid that tomorrow they won’t be able to go on aliyah.”

Rabbi Boruch Gorin

The reality, he said, is causing many Jews to want to immigrate to Israel much more than it is distancing them from the Jewish state.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia is an umbrella organization that unifies communities of Orthodox Judaism, mostly of the Chabad Hassidic movement. The chairman of the Council of Rabbis of the Federation is Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi and a confidant of President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s Justice Ministry sent a letter to the agency’s offices in Moscow in June and explained that they would be considered a “foreign agent,” and therefore wouldn’t be able to continue activities. The letter was exclusively obtained by the Post earlier this month. The subsequent article on the crisis has since been discussed widely in the world media and created tensions between Israel and Russia.

 A view shows a sign at the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Russia July 21, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA) A view shows a sign at the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Russia July 21, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)

“It’s not exactly the time of sunshine,” Gorin said of the situation in Russia. “All citizens feel instability, it’s not just the Jews.” Yet Gorin said this is what the people outside of Russia, especially in Israel and the Jewish world, see from the outside. Gorin asked to share a bit of the rich Jewish life taking place currently in Russia. 

“As to the Jewish life [in Russia], it’s better than ever. We have many summer camps, synagogues are operating and so on. We tried and succeeded to make them operate as usual. In short, this situation is very different from how it is perceived from abroad. We have functioning Jewish schools, yeshivot and summer camps. Four of my children were in different summer camps and they had a great experience. The shluchim [emissaries] of Chabad are all working in their communities across Russia as usual.”

The federation has been operating tens of camps across Russia with thousands of participants. They even have a camp for 250 children with special needs from the different cities in Russia. 

“We are now beginning the session of the girls camp in Moscow, with around 300 girls,” Gorin said.

Russia hosts about 150 families of [Chabad] emissaries who have arrived from around the world, and there are additional employees in the many institutions of the federation across Russia who have been born and raised in this country.

A huge wave of aliyah from Russia

The exiled chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, left Russia a few months ago and has been very critical of the Russian government because of the war in Ukraine. Recently, it was reported that Goldschmidt has officially left his position.

GOLDSCHMIDT ALSO spoke of a huge wave of aliyah planned from Russia. 

“We have members of the community that left,” Gorin said. “I know three families that have left. But I will say that they were planning this move for a lot of time. None of our head shluchim or rabbis have left.”

On Thursday, a rabbi who is identified with Chabad will be delivering a class at Moscow’s Choral synagogue, which was headed up until recently by Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt and Chabad haven’t been on the best of terms and were disconnected from each other, both on a Russian and on a European level, as Goldschmidt serves as President of the Conference for European Rabbis. Many members of Moscow’s different Jewish communities have been struggling to understand the reason why the Chabad rabbi was invited.

Goldschmidt wouldn’t comment on the fact that a rabbi who is a senior member of the federation, run by Chabad, was speaking at his synagogue. People in his surroundings have said, “This would never happen if he was still chief rabbi of Moscow.”

The rabbi is Col. Aharon Gurevich, who is the first chief rabbi of the Russian Army since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Gurevich was appointed to the position by Russian Chief Rabbi Lazar in December 2007. Gorin explained that Gurevich isn’t part of the Chabad movement but he is employed by the federation.

Gorin wouldn’t agree with the assumption that a few Russian Jews have shared this week that there is now a vacuum in these Orthodox, non-Chabad communities since Goldschmidt and other rabbis have left the country. 

“I don’t think that this is something to do with the vacuum,” he said. “I believe that it is something to do with the political views of this particular rabbi who heads the department of chaplains at the federation. So probably he will show the patriotic views of the people who invited him.”

Gorin suggests that the Jewish Agency hasn’t been targeted because it’s a Jewish or Israeli organization, but rather because it is an international body with overseas influences. 

“The Jewish Agency is a very rare example of an organization from abroad that has been working in Russia until now,” Gorin said. He explained that this was because “the British Council or American and Polish organizations have been closed years ago. Take the British Council, which had nothing to do with the government or foundations that are international. [They] were called foreign agents and that means that they can’t work as usual. There have also been Jewish organizations such as the KAF Foundation that was proclaimed as a foreign agent.” 

According to a Russian government site, “Charitable Foundation for the Development of Philanthropy,” KAF has been considered a foreign agent since 2022. The website says, “The reason for the recognition is unknown.”

Gorin revealed a case from a few years ago in which “one of the hessed [charity] organizations in Russia was proclaimed a foreign agent.” The organization is affiliated with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Up until now, mainly the Jewish organizations with connections to other countries have survived and not been categorized as foreign agents, while most other international organizations have already been proclaimed as such,” Gorin explained. “The Jewish organizations in Russia looked to the average Russian as very important because they were allowed to operate while other institutions needed to leave the country. What is disturbing is that people feel that now the Jewish organizations are next in line.”

ALEXANDER KARGIN, program director of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, is the one who organized the special class by Rabbi Aaron Gurevich. The Post approached Kargin but he hasn’t agreed to an interview. However, he told the Russian news outlet Gazeta.Ru this week, “Lapid makes many statements that negatively affect relations between the two countries during the election race,” referring to the Israeli attitude toward the current Israeli-Russian diplomatic crisis.

“To a large extent, this situation has developed because Israel is in an election mess, and the current Prime Minister Yair Lapid takes a critical position toward Russia and makes many problematic statements that worsen Russian-Israeli relations,” Kargin said. He tried to explain to Russian readers that Lapid’s “left-liberal electorate” is generally “not very positive about Russia.”

Many Russian Jews said this week that they couldn’t imagine a similar crisis between Israel and Russia if Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister. Kargin explained to Gazeta.Ru, “Netanyahu had very good relations with Russia. He had personal contacts with Putin and in principle, under Netanyahu, it was difficult for me to imagine that the situation that exists would develop.”

Kargin doesn’t think that the agency’s liquidation and exile from Russia will influence the aliyah process, since it is, in his opinion, merely “an intermediary organization between Russian Jews and Israeli structures.” He is under the impression that Jews will be able to take care of their aliyah procedure through the Israeli consulate. 

“The closure of the Jewish Agency will have little effect on repatriation, most likely it will not affect it in any way,” Kargin said, telling Gazeta.Ru that the “mediator is not always effective.”

Kargin added that he personally knows many Jews who have made aliyah. 

“I have heard very few good reviews about the Jewish Agency from anyone,” he is quoted saying. He added, “There are a lot of complaints about the work of this organization.... There is a lot of chaos, a lot of problems.”

Yet he said the experiences of those who have made aliyah from Russia have nothing to do with whether the closing of the agency’s offices in Moscow is good or bad. “This will not affect the aliyah process itself,” he said. 

Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel will be able to “buy [airline] tickets, come to the consulate, pass an inspection, leave for Israel and be absorbed there,” Kargin claimed. He also is under the impression that the closure of the agency in Russia won’t affect the work of the Jewish community, “but at the same time, it would be a signal of a deterioration in Russian-Israeli relations,” he told Gazeta.Ru.

It is still unclear how this situation will affect the Jewish community in Russia. 

What the Jewish Agency failed to do in the area of encouraging the aliyah of members of the Jewish community, the Russian government succeeded in doing in the policy it dictated during the war in Ukraine,” Goldschmidt said in a statement on behalf of the Council of European Rabbis this week, explaining fairly well how complicated the current situation really is.