Election of third chief rabbi in Ukraine splits Jewish community

One country, three chief rabbis: Such is Ukraine following Moshe Reuven Azman's election to the post. Critics of the September 11 vote - who include m

One country, three chief rabbis: Such is Ukraine following Moshe Reuven Azman's election to the post.

Critics of the September 11 vote - who include most of the country's rabbis and dozens of secular activists - said Azman's election as Ukraine's chief rabbi was primarily intended to increase media magnate Vadim Rabinovich's influence over President Viktor Yuschenko.

The chief rabbi's post can lead to better access to Ukrainian authorities and international donors, and to government recognition in the process of restitution of former Jewish communal property. In Ukraine, the government views the chief rabbi as the representative and chief liaison to the Jewish community.

Some other Jewish leaders said Azman, 39, technically was elected as chief rabbi of only two Jewish organizations in Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Community of Ukraine. Both are headed by Rabinovich.

A majority of rabbis working in Ukraine blasted Azman's election as illegitimate.

Three dozen Chabad rabbis representing the Federation of Jewish Communities, the region's largest Jewish group, said in a statement last month that the election was "illegitimate" and "insulting to the feelings of every believer."

A chief rabbi can be elected only by other rabbis working in the community, the statement said. Azman's election was endorsed by a group of secular Jewish leaders attending a Kiev Jewish conference, but not by any rabbinical authorities.

Some 150 secular Jewish leaders from 100 Ukrainian cities and towns later protested the vote as well.

Azman became the third rabbi to claim the title of chief rabbi in Ukraine.

Yakov Dov Bleich, a US-born rabbi and member of the Karlin-Stoliner Hassidic group, has been widely recognized as chief rabbi of both Kiev and Ukraine since 1992.

Bleich, 41, a pioneer of Jewish renaissance in post-Communist Ukraine, was never properly elected, yet he has shown no intention of giving up the post.

Ukrainian Jews got another chief rabbi in 2003 when Soviet-born, Brussels-based Azriel Haikin, 75, was proclaimed chief rabbi by dozens of Chabad rabbis working for the federation in Ukraine.

Those who supported Haikin's election two years ago protested Azman's election last month. Azman, who also is Soviet-born, is a Chabad-ordained rabbi but not a member of the federation.

A spokesman for the federation called Azman's election "nonsense." "This game is aimed at getting political dividends on the eve of parliamentary elections," Oleg Rostovtsev, the federation's spokesman, told JTA, referring to national elections due next spring.

The split over the chief rabbinate was evident at a recent shul dedication ceremony in the city of Sumy. The city's official Chabad rabbi was disinvited to the ceremony organized by Rabinovich, who sent the small community a rabbinical student trained by Azman.

Azman, who acknowledged the difficulties he faces, said he'll continue working for the community he has served for several years now, regardless of the debate.

"I'm happy to have an opportunity to serve all the Jewish people," he told JTA. "I consider this an honor to be a rabbi of all the Jews, but not a rabbi of all the rabbis in Ukraine." Rabinovich told JTA the election was needed because "Azman is a real spiritual Jewish leader of all Ukraine."

One of the best known figures among the Ukrainian business elite, Rabinovich long has supported Azman and his congregation, the Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev.

A key to the situation can be found in the "Orange Revolution" that elevated Yuschenko to national power late last year.

Azman's shul found itself in the center of the public protests when tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest what they saw as a rigged presidential election.

Azman opened the doors of his synagogue to give some protesters food and shelter, saying that he was politically neutral and merely was fulfilling a humanitarian mission.

When Yuschenko emerged victorious in a second vote, he and his family visited Azman's synagogue, where he lit Hanukkah candles and joined Azaman and Rabinovich in a traditional meal of latkes and jelly donuts.

In contrast, most federation rabbis backed Yuschenko's rival, former Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, the choice of former President Leonid Kuchma, with whom the federation enjoyed close ties.

"The election of Azman is a struggle for influence over President Yuschenko between rabbis and those who support them," said Mikhail Frenkel, leader of the Ukrainian Association of Jewish Media.

"Yuschenko is not informed about other Jewish religious movements in Ukraine. He visited only the Brodsky Synagogue, which hosted strikers during the Orange Revolution," said Rabbi Alex Duchovny, head of the Reform movement in Ukraine. "We should inform the president that Judaism is multicolored."

A Yuschenko adviser said the president has shown no preference for any of the chief rabbis.

"President Yuschenko has equal respect for the different streams in Judaism and to the religious leader of each religious Jewish community who was elected legally," Alexander Sagan, Yuschenko's adviser on religious affairs, told JTA.

Some experts worry that the selection of Azman could further split the community with parliamentary elections just six months away.

"It's impossible to consolidate the Jewish community in this situation when every two to three years we have a new chief rabbi of Ukraine," said Ilya Levitas of the Jewish Council of Ukraine.