Is Russian Jewry at risk? - opinion

Jewish life in Russia is normal - Shuls are full, schools are operating and the community is alive.

THE INTERIOR of the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg, Russia, is seen. (photo credit: GRAND CHORAL SYNAGOGUE)
THE INTERIOR of the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg, Russia, is seen.
(photo credit: GRAND CHORAL SYNAGOGUE)

It was with a sense of anxiety that I embarked on a recent trip to Russia. Many attempted to dissuade me, saying “It’s dangerous, you don’t know what could happen.” Others compared it to a war zone, and some even feared, “as an American, you could get arrested.” Even some family members urged me not to go.

I was slated to travel and COVID hit, deferring my plans. The trip was essential to research for a new book I’m writing – a biography of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, a pivotal figure in Russian-Jewish history.

Here’s what I found during my 10-day tour of Moscow, Lubavitch, Rostov-on-Don and St. Petersburg. The most surprising thing I experienced was the sense of normalcy. Other than the economic sanctions that make it difficult to travel to and from the country, as well as use credit cards, there are no signs of war. Life continues as normal.

Never during any part of my visit, from one end of the country to the other, did I feel at risk – not at truck stops on the highway to the town of Lubavitch, just a few kilometers from Russia’s western border, nor on the streets of the bigger cities. 

When I said I was American, I only got offers to help me navigate. The only visible effect of the war was the closing of the airport in Rostov, just a hundred miles from the border. To reach the city, I took a 16-hour train ride from Moscow.

Vladimir Putin's Rosh Hashanah card to the Jews of Russia (Sep. 9, 2018).  (credit: Courtesy)Vladimir Putin's Rosh Hashanah card to the Jews of Russia (Sep. 9, 2018). (credit: Courtesy)

Similarly, Jewish life continues as before – and it’s vibrant. Shuls are full, schools are operating and the community is alive. I joined a Shabbat dinner for college students and a lunch for young Jewish professionals in Moscow. I participated in the opening-day exercises of one of the six Jewish schools in St. Petersburg, where a few hundred children and their parents filled the school auditorium for the traditional ringing of the bell ceremony. The oldest students carried the youngest on their shoulders to ring the bell and start the new year.

My Moscow hotel was hosting a conference of youth leaders – young dynamic Jews in their early twenties who coordinate Jewish teen programs across Russia. They came from as far east as Tomsk in Siberia, to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave adjacent to Germany, brimming with ideas, PowerPoint presentations, and active discussions around programming for the new year.

This vibrancy was apparent everywhere, be it at religious services in synagogues or social settings like the Shabbat dinner I joined in St. Petersburg with doctors, lawyers and bankers. I was assured that no one has seen a rise in antisemitism. When I asked over a dozen rabbis whether there had been any pressure from the government for them to speak out in support of the conflict, the answer was always “no.”

Reality for Russian Jews

STILL, ONE cannot ignore the reality. The freedom of speech we treasure in the West isn’t the same in Russia. One woman who does not support the conflict told me simply, “I don’t put my views on social media.” Another said she fears expressing her opinion publicly. There is an adverse impact on those most economically challenged. 

A small percentage of Jews, particularly those who are more mobile and affluent, have chosen to leave for Israel. Others are acquiring passports in case things change. But no one feels any greater surveillance, or any government effort restricting freedom of religion in Russia. Jewish life continues as before, with no change. 

Some have pointed to the present crisis with the Jewish Agency in Russia as a sign that there is a greater risk to Jews in Russia. But as Winston Churchill famously said, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” What’s the real motive behind the threat to possibly close the Jewish Agency? Is it part of a general crackdown on foreign NGOs, or is it due to Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s criticism of Russia, or something else entirely?

Knowledgeable sources tell me that with time the crisis will probably be resolved. What is clear is that Jewish organizations based in Russia have not suffered from any adverse government action.

Some in the West have urged Jewish leaders in Russia to speak out about Ukraine and disparaged those who have not. At a conference of Russian rabbis held this week, the Jewish leaders of Russia expressed their commitment to Russian Jewry and prayer for peace. President Isaac Herzog and Israel’s chief rabbis sent messages to the conference, encouraging the attendees to continue their mission of caring for Russian Jews. 

Their responsibility is the welfare of Russian Jewry, to help those in need, educate children, create a dynamic community, and uplift spiritually. They see their role as taking care of the needs of Russian Jewry and have historically restrained themselves from any political involvement.

What will happen in the future?

THE BIG question is the future – but that always has been the case. The policy of the present government has been to protect Jews and encourage Jewish life in Russia. Will that change under different leadership? Has Russia truly left its autocratic history of restricting religious life or is this but a temporary lull?

Is the fact that antisemitism isn’t felt in Russia a real sign of transformation, or is it lingering under the surface, ready to emerge when the time is ripe? This issue has been on the minds of Russian Jews for more than two decades, and the present situation is not necessarily impacting that dilemma. 

Presently, there are two primary challenges for Russian Jewry. The first is caring for the most vulnerable, those impacted by the economic downturn. The second is ensuring the sustainability of Jewish life in Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the community has had a remarkable renaissance. It also has become largely financially independent. The present sanctions have seriously impacted historic sources of local income that have been vital to Jewish life in the country. 

During this difficult period, world Jewry needs to step forward and help the Russian Jewish community until it can again get on its feet. At the same time, global Jewish leaders must act with responsibility for their Jewish brethren by being vigilant to any adverse changes that could impact them, and restraining themselves from overreacting and creating a sense of crisis when that is not the case.

The writer, a rabbi, is the author of the upcoming book Undaunted – the life of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Reach him at [email protected]