In Russia, a Top Rabbi Uses Kremlin Ties to Gain Power

Moscow, Russia - Of all the strange relationships that define today's Russia, few are stranger than the alliance between President Vladimir Putin and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Berel Lazar.

Rabbi Lazar is a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic sect based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that is on the fringes of mainstream Judaism. Its devotees are known for their love of the Rebbe, their late spiritual leader. Some even think he's the Messiah.

In Russia, the Lubavitch are not a marginal sect but a dominant force in Jewish life. Their leader, Rabbi Lazar, goes by the title of Russia's chief rabbi and is viewed by many to be head of the country's Jewish community.

Thriving on Mr. Putin's patronage, his organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, is now one of Russia's leading charities, with schools, clinics, orphanages and community centers across the country. Some credit it with single-handedly reviving Jewish life in the Russian hinterlands.

But critics charge its success is based on a Faustian bargain with the Kremlin. They say Rabbi Lazar has at times deliberately played down anti-Semitism in Russia and acted as a lobbyist for Mr. Putin around the world. In exchange, Chabad-Lubavitch enjoys unparalleled political influence and has been allowed to gain control of millions of dollars worth of communal property from the Russian state, often trouncing rival claims from other Jewish organizations, critics say.

"There were always court Jews under the Czars, under the Soviets," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, a Jewish community leader. "Lazar is firmly in that tradition."

A jovial father of 12 in a traditional black gabardine suit and fedora, Rabbi Lazar, 42 years old, says his influence is exaggerated. "There's this myth that I have the key to the president's office," he laughs. But he quickly adds: "I think it's very important to have a good relationship with the authorities." Brushing off claims he's too soft on Mr. Putin and his crackdown on democracy, he says it's not his place to speak out on issues not directly related to Jewish life.

Rabbi Lazar's rise coincided with Mr. Putin's drive to centralize power and crush dissent. After entering the Kremlin in 2000, the new president silenced independent media, jailed critical businessmen, neutered parliament and nationalized energy assets.

But his reach also extended deep into civil society. Organizations loyal to Mr. Putin, such as the Federation of Jewish Communities, known in Russian as FEOR, were protected and promoted, Kremlin critics say. Those he saw as untrustworthy were pushed aside. Sometimes, when a group was independent, the authorities simply created a clone that was more pliant, critics have alleged.

'Kremlin Connections'

FEOR's rise demonstrates how ambitious groups can take advantage of the government's tightening grip on Russian society in order to push their own agendas and sideline rivals. FEOR is frequently accused of seeking to be the sole voice of Jews in Russia in much the same way as the Kremlin monopolizes Russian politics.

"Their Kremlin connections have allowed them to lock themselves in place as the official leaders of the community here," says Alexander Osovtsov, a former vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress and an outspoken critic of President Putin.

For centuries, the fate of Russia's Jews rested on the whim of their rulers. In Czarist times they were confined to a region in the west of the Russian Empire called the Pale of Settlement, and were prey to Cossack pogroms. Under the Soviets, religious life was forced underground and Jews were subjected to quotas in universities.

In 1991 communism collapsed, Russia's borders opened, and hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel. Foreign rabbis flooded in to help Jews who stayed behind reclaim their ethnic and religious identity. They had a lot of work to do: The vast majority of the 600,000 to 1 million Jews in Russia are secular, assimilated and divorced from Jewish tradition.

[Vladimir Putin]

Among the foreign rabbis were followers of Chabad. Born in the late 18th century in the then-Russian town of Lubavitch, Chabad survived the Holocaust by moving to the U.S., eventually settling in Brooklyn. Under the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad grew from a tiny sect into a global movement dedicated to bringing nonobservant Jews back to their faith. Its New York City activists are famous for driving around in specially outfitted vehicles known as "Mitzvah Tanks" and handing out Sabbath candles or holding short religious ceremonies with passing Jews.

Chabad -- an acronym made up of the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge -- now has 4,000 emissaries, known as shluchim, operating in 73 countries around the world. Just over 150 of them are in Russia, including Rabbi Lazar. Born in Milan, the child of shluchim parents, he studied at seminaries in the U.S. and came to Russia in 1990, with a plan to stay for one year. He never left.

Initially, Chabad was a small presence in Russia. It was overshadowed by more-established local groups that had grown in strength by aligning themselves with Jewish oligarchs -- the tycoons who used their connections to build up huge fortunes and wield vast power in 1990s Russia. The biggest was the Russian Jewish Congress, a philanthropic group set up in 1996 by media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky.

Improving Fortunes

But Chabad's fortunes improved dramatically with the 2000 election of Mr. Putin, who was determined to curb the power of the oligarchs. Mr. Gusinsky, who had used his media outlets to fiercely attack the government, was at the top of his hit list.

Soon, tax police were raiding Mr. Gusinsky's media company. Over the ensuing months, it was taken over by the state gas monopoly. Then the authorities began targeting his other stronghold, the Jewish Congress, critics say.

"Putin perceived the Congress as a threat," says Tancred Golenpolsky, one of the Congress's founders and publisher of one of Russia's oldest Jewish newspapers. "It was a gang of oligarchs who he couldn't rely on."

A Kremlin spokesman denies it targeted the Congress. As a charitable foundation, it "could not be perceived as a political threat to the state," he says.

The Kremlin didn't challenge Mr. Gusinsky directly at the Congress, which was packed with the magnate's supporters. Mr. Putin instead backed a rival group -- FEOR, which was created in 1999 by Rabbi Lazar and the Uzbek-born Israeli diamond dealer Lev Leviev. This strategy helped the Kremlin deflect accusations that its campaign against the Congress was anti-Semitic.

FEOR's founding gathering at Moscow's Olympic Penta hotel was lavishly covered in the state media. The organization claimed to represent dozens of Jewish communities. But from the start, Chabadniks dominated FEOR's governing body, programs and policies.

FEOR's main goal was to have its man installed as chief rabbi -- the officially recognized head of the Jewish community in Russia. At the time, the position was held by Adolf Shayevich, who backed Mr. Gusinsky's Jewish Congress.

In May 2000, Rabbi Shayevich says, Mr. Leviev offered him $240,000 to step down and hand power over to Rabbi Lazar. He says he retorted that his post was not for sale. Mr. Leviev declined to comment, and Rabbi Lazar says he knows nothing about the alleged offer.

Less than two weeks later, FEOR assembled in Moscow and elected Rabbi Lazar as chief rabbi, claiming that the organization represented the entire Russian Jewish community. That same day, Mr. Gusinsky was arrested. After spending four days in jail, he fled Russia, never to return.

Rabbi Lazar says the initiative for his election came from local communities frightened of being identified with Mr. Gusinsky's brand of opposition politics. "They said if this goes on we'll have the whole country against us," he says.

But many wondered how the Italian-born envoy of an ultra-Orthodox sect who spoke broken Russian had come to assume leadership of all of Russia's Jews. By some estimates, less than 5% of Russia's Jewish population is Chabad. Rabbi Lazar had received a Russian passport just a few weeks before his election.

"It was as if 30 Catholic priests from Poland and Ireland elected...(the) Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church," says Mr. Satanovsky, who was president of the Jewish Congress from 2001 till 2004.

Rabbi Shayevich refused to cede his title. The two have been at odds ever since, with both claiming to be chief rabbi. Some organizations and publications recognize both of them.

But Mr. Putin quickly made it clear whose side he was on. In September 2000 he opened Chabad's new $10 million community center in Moscow, praising FEOR as a "constructive and influential organization." A photo of him cutting the ribbon by Rabbi Lazar's side graces the rabbi's conference room.

Not on the Guest List

When Mr. Putin gave his first State of the Nation speech in July 2000, he invited Rabbi Lazar to attend, leaving Rabbi Shayevich off the guest list -- the first of many snubs. The following year, the president replaced Rabbi Shayevich with Rabbi Lazar on a council that advises him on religious issues.

The Kremlin denied playing favorites. "We don't interfere in the internal affairs of the Jewish community," the spokesman said.

Rabbi Lazar quickly endeared himself to his new patrons. In media interviews, he stressed that the crackdown on Mr. Gusinsky had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. On numerous trips to Washington, he lobbied members of Congress, made speeches and gave countless media interviews against the Jackson-Vanik amendment. That Cold War law, which curbed U.S. trade with nations restricting emigration, has long rankled the Kremlin.

He also praised Mr. Putin for presiding over a steep decline in anti-Semitism. Speaking in Jerusalem in October 2004, he said Russia was "one of the safest places for Jews in Europe," a statement that provoked outrage among some Jewish leaders back home.

The facts suggested he was exaggerating. An Israeli government organization, the Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism, said the number of violent incidents against Jewish targets in Russia rose from four in 2003 to 55 the following year. In January 2005, some 500 nationalists, including lawmakers from a Kremlin-backed right-wing party, published a letter demanding the authorities ban all Jewish organizations in Russia, accusing them of extremism and hostility to ethnic Russians. Last year, vandals in six different cities attacked Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Under Pressure

Rabbi Lazar came under pressure to toughen his rhetoric -- especially after a Chabad rabbi was beaten up by racist thugs while walking through a Moscow underpass in January 2005. Gradually he began expressing concern about Russia's rising tide of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

Still, he continued to enjoy countless invitations to the Kremlin and interviews in the state media. That benefited Chabad-Lubavitch: Local Jewish businessmen began to donate heavily to FEOR.

"They saw Lazar as a channel to the Kremlin, someone who might put in a good word for them with Putin," says Zinovy Kogan, a prominent Moscow rabbi.

Avraham Berkowitz, a senior federation official and Chabad member, says, "Donors support us because they believe in the work we are doing and see the success of our programs."

The Kremlin spokesman denies FEOR acted as an intermediary. "Putin doesn't need bridges to the business community," he says.

It wasn't just Chabad's Kremlin ties that earned it support. With its fund-raising, lobbying and public-relations skills, the group proved highly effective at organizing community life. Outsiders were impressed by Chabad rabbis' willingness to take up jobs in some of Russia's most depressing and remote provincial towns.

Soon, Federation coffers were overflowing with funds from some of Russia's richest men. Tycoon Roman Abramovich financed Chabad orphanages and poverty programs. Mr. Leviev, a Lubavitcher whose business interests have flourished under Mr. Putin, created a network of Chabad schools throughout Russia. And the New York-based investment manager George Rohr, one of the biggest investors in the Russian stock market in the 1990s, donated vast sums to build Jewish community centers.

Last year alone, the Federation raised $38 million in the U.S. for programs in the former Soviet Union. In contrast, Rabbi Shayevich's rival organization has an annual budget of $3.5 million. (Neither Mr. Rohr nor Mr. Abramovich comment publicly on their philanthropic activities.)

Flush with cash, Chabad has been able to offer a host of new services to congregants. There are now 9,000 children studying at Chabad day schools and 5,000 at Chabad kindergartens. FEOR has restored dozens of synagogues and built 16 community centers across Russia. This year, 150,000 people in Russia attended free FEOR-sponsored Passover meals.

FEOR cites statistics like this to support its claim to represent the bulk of Russia's Jews. "Our biggest claim is how many people come to our services and how many go to other synagogues," says Rabbi Lazar.

But some Jewish leaders have condemned FEOR for using its political clout to engineer what critics call "hostile takeovers" of communal property. They cite examples of cities like Samara on the Volga, where local authorities intervened to give FEOR control of a synagogue once affiliated with a rival group.

FEOR denies the accusations. "There was never a question of taking property from other organizations," says Mr. Berkowitz, the federation official. "Most of FEOR's major projects were built from scratch, anyway."

Critics also accuse FEOR officials of luring away provincial communities already served by other Jewish denominations by promising them bigger budgets, more money for synagogue restoration and salaries for staff.

In the Siberian city of Omsk, authorities handed the city synagogue to the local Reform Jewish congregation in the early 1990s. But in 2001, Mr. Abramovich visited Omsk community leader Leonid Khayit, taking with him the local governor, and offered a huge boost in funding if he switched allegiance to FEOR. He agreed.

"He thought FEOR was a more heavyweight organization politically," says Ilya Edelshtein, who succeeded Mr. Khayit after his death three years ago.

Mr. Abramovich said through a spokesman he could not recall the conversation.

Some congregants in Omsk were disappointed by the new direction. The town's new rabbi, a Chabadnik from Israel, surprised them by organizing special celebrations in honor of the Rebbe, who died in 1994 but is still revered by Lubavitchers, who often hang portraits of him in their homes. "People here don't really understand why we should have special prayers for the Rebbe's birthday," says Mr. Edelshtein. "It feels like idolatry."

What's more, the new rabbi has taken a tough stand on members who didn't qualify as Jews according to Halacha, or Jewish law. People whose mothers weren't Jewish were made to feel unwelcome at services, say officials of the Omsk synagogue.

Rabbi Lazar says the choice of whether or not to enforce Halacha is often left to the discretion of individual rabbis, but he denies FEOR is dogmatic on the issue. "We never push anyone out," he says.

Despite the controversy that dogs him, Rabbi Lazar is now firmly part of the Russian establishment. In 2005, President Putin tapped him to join the Public Chamber, a newly-created consultative body of prominent citizens. Civil-rights advocates have denounced it as an ersatz parliament, typical of the Kremlin's top-down approach to building civil society.

Rabbi Lazar says Russia's Jews have seen a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes and Mr. Putin deserves some of the credit. "What we've seen over the last 20 years is nothing short of a miracle," he says.