Russian rabbis refuse to abandon community amid Ukraine war

The rabbis also criticized former chief rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, without mentioning his name, for leaving Russia and criticizing it internationally.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. (photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)

Seventy-five leading Russian rabbis have reiterated their collective commitment to “not abandoning their communities and staying with them to provide spiritual, psychological and emotional support, no matter how complicated things get.” The statement was issued in an emergency conference in Moscow on Monday, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

The rabbis, led by Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, said in the statement, “Our role is not to involve ourselves in domestic or geopolitics. We are shocked that some individuals not only believe that rabbis have a duty to jeopardize their communities by engaging in political activities or even to abandon their community altogether as a form of political protest.

“What’s more, these individuals make statements condemning rabbis and community leaders who have chosen to stay and serve their community,” they said, referring to former chief rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, who left Russia, criticized the authorities for the war in Ukraine in international media and “abandoned his community,” according to sources in Moscow.

“We express our support for rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who find themselves under hateful attacks and we support their responsible and appropriate conduct,” they added.

The rabbis didn’t state anything specific regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, except that they were “praying that peace prevails in the world.”

Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019. (credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)Chabad emissaries (shluchim) attending their annual international conference at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn in November 2019. (credit: MENDEL GROSSBAUM/CHABAD.ORG)

Russian rabbis don't criticize invasion, no mention of Ukraine

The Russian rabbis said they “pray for the well-being of all the inhabitants of the world, regardless of race or nationality.... We call on world leaders to do everything in their power to bring peace between nations.... We pray that no more blood be spilled and call upon people of good conscience everywhere to help aid those in need, including refugees, and end the suffering.”

The word “Ukraine” isn’t mentioned in the statement.

The rabbis at the conference represent 400 of their colleagues from across Russia, the federation said in a press release.

'Fear and uncertainty' for Jews in Russia

One of the purposes of the conference is to counter the assumption in the Jewish world that all of the Jews in Russia are interested in an exodus from the country, the group said.

“There is a lot of fear and uncertainty for the Jews in Russia,” the federation said. “They are told by people outside Russia that their only option is to give up their homes and lives and flee abroad. This has only been compounded by what appears to be the Russian government’s attempt to shut down the Jewish Agency. Yet, the vast majority of Russian Jews have chosen to remain.”

Since the start of the war in Ukraine in February, many members of Russia’s non-Jewish clergy have voiced their unabashed support for the invasion. A smaller number of clergy have chosen to speak out against the government’s policies and have left the country.

From the beginning of the war, the Russian rabbis have chosen a third approach: to remain with their congregations and communities while simultaneously calling for immediate peace and an end to the bloodshed.

“Meanwhile, some voices in the West have demanded that rabbis sacrifice the Jewish community’s safety by publicly attacking the government,” the federation said in a veiled reference to Goldschmidt.

Meanwhile, Israel’s chief rabbis and leaders, including President Isaac Herzog, have sent letters of support and encouragement to Russia’s rabbis for their “heroic” efforts.

“You are the ones who navigate your community to [its] destination,” said Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau in a letter to Russian rabbis. “I hope and pray for a spirit of peace and that you, the rabbis of the Jewish community, should be able to continue in your duties to make God’s name beloved and elevated, to bring truth and peace for the benefit of your congregations and all of humanity.”

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote to the rabbis, “The Jewish community of Russia is relying upon you spiritually and materially. This is true of both those who turn to you for halachic rulings, advice and guidance, and of those who pay attention to your actions and are influenced by them.”

Former Jewish Agency chairman and human rights activist Natan Sharansky wrote to the rabbis and acknowledged that they “are going through a challenging time.” Sharansky stated, “The war started by the Russian leadership in Ukraine brings incalculable suffering to the Ukrainian people and Jewish communities among them. Not surprisingly, aliyah from Ukraine has risen sharply. But aliyah from Russia rose even more. It is important that the leaders of the Jewish communities assist all those who decide to join us in Israel.”

Sharansky encouraged the rabbis to assist those Jews who have not decided to leave.

“[Of equal] importance 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,” he wrote.