REBUILDING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN RUSSIA. Berel Lazar is a Jewish Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic rabbi. Born in Italy, he studied in America and began his service in Russia in 1990. He became Chief Rabbi of Russia in 2000.
This interview is available here as a podcast.
Berel Lazar, as the Chief Rabbi of Russia and the Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities, what is your job and your objective?
My main job is to help people in their life, materially, spiritually; by giving them advice, by showing them what the Torah has to say, how to live the right kind of life. Sometimes it’s just helping them find a job, a solution to their problems. More than anything it’s bringing people together. My main objective is to rebuild the Jewish community to become vibrant again here in Russia. Before the revolution Russia was one of the largest and strongest Jewish communities in the world. Communism practically destroyed it completely, by closing synagogues, schools, and forbidding any kind of Jewish activity.
How many Jews were in the Russian Empire before the revolution?
Five or six million, maybe even more. Then there were pogroms, persecution, assimilation, World War 2. Then over a million Jews left Russia in the 1990s to go to Israel, and before that to America too. The community here was decimated.
How many are there now?
At least one million Jews are left in Russia. In Ukraine and the republics around Ukraine – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Bela Russia, Moldova – there are at least another half a million.
Are you in touch with the many Russian Jews now in Israel?
We have programs for Russian speaking Jews in Israel, but our main goal is that they should become part of Israel, within society. When they were in Russia they were Jews, and when they came to Israel they became Russian. But now the young people feel they are real Israeli Jews.
What do you think about Israel?
Israel needs a very special blessing. There used to be a lot of patriotic feeling for Israel. The Jewish people came back to their homeland and wanted to rebuild it, and they did it all together. Today for political reasons you have a divide that should not be there. They are having the third election in a year and cannot yet find a common idea that brings them together. They have to put their differences aside and think what is best for the country and for the future. It’s very special to be in Israel, but it’s not easy. When there’s so much conflict around and you worry about your survival you lose touch with finding the real goals in life.
What happened to the Jews who remained in Russia?
They were completely unaffiliated, even assimilated, but today more and more are coming out of the closet and saying, we are proud and happy to be part of the Jewish community. It’s very important that Judaism should be something that they celebrate, because they suffered so much for being Jewish. Now is the time for them to embrace it with enthusiasm and excitement. It’s in style to be Jewish today.
“The communist approach has evaporated. Jews live comfortably in Russia now and will do in the future.”
Berel Lazar, is there now much less anti-Semitism in Russia?
That is what we are actually witnessing. In communist times anti-Semitism was really government propaganda blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong. This has changed completely since 1990, but then there was a lot of chaos and instability in the country and there were still some anti-Semitic attacks. From 2000 until today, thank God, there has been a strong decline, and acts of anti-Semitism are almost unheard of. Walking in the streets you don’t feel any animosity. The Jewish community is taking an active role in every possible field. The attitude of the government has changed completely. The President comes to visit the Jewish community, and sends special greetings before every holiday. There are many cultural events, such as putting up the Hanukkah menorah in Red Square. Jews who used to walk around with their heads down and hide their Jewishness are finally proud to be Jewish. Education and knowledge brings new understanding and the myths that brought anti-Semitism, thank God, have completely disappeared.
How many Jewish communities and synagogues are there?
Close to 200 communities in 200 cities. Some are very big and have a synagogue, community centres, schools, kindergartens. Some are just small synagogues. In smaller cities in general there is a problem because a lot of people are leaving. In the big communities the amount of people coming to synagogue is constantly growing. The youth and people that were completely disconnected from Judaism are finally finding their way home.
How many rabbis are there?
In Russia today there are one hundred and seventy rabbis. In all the countries of the former Soviet Union it’s probably over four hundred. In the Soviet Union there were no rabbis at all, zero rabbis. Now more and more local rabbis are taking positions in different cities and serving the communities. There are schools and Jewish universities where people are trained to become the future Jewish leaders in this country.
Did you and your family become Russian?
I became Russian, and all my 13 children came back to Russia. They could have gone to live anywhere in the world, but they saw that the biggest opportunities today are in Russia. Each of them is unique, and each one is very, very good. I give credit to my wife, and I am very proud of them. They’re not only religious, they all are following in our footsteps working in the community here, teaching and helping others. They see that this is the most fulfilling kind of mission, when you can help somebody, make his life more comfortable, more idealistic, and they see how much you gain by giving, how much you’re receiving when you try to help. This is the biggest happiness that a person can have, when he sees he can make a change in the world and make the world a better place.
It cannot be easy to have 13 children in the world of today?
It’s easier when you have many – when you have one child it’s very difficult, because he expects a lot of attention, doesn’t understand what it means to share, that he has to help his brothers and sisters. Very often they become spoiled and bored, but when you have many they entertain each other and help each other grow. Each one looks at the other and sees by example what he’s doing and they try to do the same. To ensure that they’re getting the right message is easier with 13 than with one.
“This is the biggest happiness that a person can have, when he sees he can make a change in the world and make the world a better place.”
Berel Lazar, do you think that many Jews will come back and that Russia will once again be a major Jewish centre in the world?
I’m sure some will come back, but just having the Russian Jews coming back to the tradition and to their history is enough to rebuild the Jewish community. People that visit big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg cannot believe how much Jewish life there is now.
This has happened under President Putin’s protection. What about the future?
Society in general in Russia changed, and became much more tolerant to Jews. I don’t think it depends on who the president is, the communist approach has evaporated. Jews live comfortably in Russia now and will do in the future. There’s a very strong respect here for traditional values.
How is Russia today?
Russia is not going through an easy period, including the relationship with America. Nothing good has come out of the sanctions against Russia, or the economic war against China. Everybody is losing out of it, the whole world is in a very tough situation, but the situation is very stable in Russia. We would like to see more peace in the world. A strong leader has to come and say, enough of this fighting and bickering and accusing and punishing and let’s try to find a way to live together and make the world a better place where our children and grandchildren are going to live happily and safe.
Do you see President Putin often?
Quite often, yes.
Do you talk to him about these things?
I try as much as I can to let my voice be heard. I believe that he’s also trying. I believe a lot of people are trying. A lot of leaders would act differently if the world would want to find peace.
As the Chief Rabbi are you in contact with the Russian Orthodox Church?
Very good contact, and we did a lot of interesting projects together, against drugs, to teach tolerance. All the religious leaders of Russia are going to Auschwitz this year in connection to 75 years of the victory of the war. When all the different religions show what unites us, that we believe in one God, helping each other, caring, this is the best way to see how much religion brings peace and harmony.
You are an orthodox Hasidic Jew, yet the large community you rule is not entirely Hasidic?
Hasidism was born here in Russia. Not every Jew in Russia is Hasid, but all feel a strong connection to the warmth and happiness of the Hasidic philosophy. Having said that, we embrace every Jew, we don’t make a difference between one Jew and another Jew. Walk into any synagogue in Russia and you’ll see all different kinds of Jews. Nobody here wants to divide one community into different segments.
There are Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but everybody comes to synagogue together. The only difference is some people eat this kind of food and other people other kinds of food, but we both eat each other’s food. We really don’t make a difference between different Jews.
Are you still pleased with your job after so many years?
Extremely excited. I don’t think it’s a job. Every day for me is a new holiday, and I thank God for having given me this chance of being personally connected to such a special community, in a place where I can really do whatever I feel is right in trying to change people’s lives and making a better quality of life for them.
You said that religions bring peace, but there are many wars of religion around the world?
The foundation of any religion is loving your fellow, caring for each other, helping each other. Do not kill. Do not steal. This is the best of any religion. It’s all about morals, values, ethics. Very cynical people abuse religion for their own purpose and say that it’s a war or a disagreement because of religion. Something so special should bring everybody together, because at the end of the day there’s one God and it’s the same God for all religions. This should unite us the most, and in Russia we meet and have discussions and always find some common denominator that brings us together in peace and friendship, as a family. As an example, the grandchildren of the Chief Mufti play with our kids. They come to our events, the head mufti comes to the synagogue and we visit him. We have a really close relationship, and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia disappears when people see how we relate to each other. There is nothing that brings people more together than religion.
This does not appear to be the case in the Middle-East?
In Jerusalem all the different religions are in the same city and live in peace. If you want to, you can make it happen. Actually religion could bring people very strongly together. Political interest has nothing to do with what religion is all about.
Muscovites brave the cold for the menorah lighting in Red Square.
The Moscow Choral Synagogue is one of the main synagogues in Russia and in the former Soviet Union.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, visits the Jewish Museum of Tolerance in Moscow.
A synagogue in Siberia.
An interfaith conference in Kazan, the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia.
Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar lights a Hanukkah candle during the International Holocaust Survivors Night of the Jewish Community at the Jewish Community Center and Synagogue in Moscow.
“The whole point of Judaism is to give us a beautiful way of living.”
Berel Lazar, what do you make of this modern technological world?
Technology is like any instrument we are given. You can use a knife to operate on someone and to save his life, and you can use a knife to kill. Used in the right way technology could bring people together and help people make life better in many different ways. Sadly, some people take technology and use it to harbor hate and ruin people’s lives, and technology could become a very dangerous tool. Everybody, not only government officials, but educators, religious leaders, NGOs, the business world, has to be very careful how we use technology, and not ruin the world we live in.
Today’s world is also increasingly secular?
In many countries we see the degradation of the family and society. People try to live without any rules and do whatever they want, and it’s a dangerous path. To drive a car people have to follow certain rules, for their own safety and for the safety of the people in the street. We are all living in the same world and we all are interconnected. People choose secularity because they want easier lives with no commitments or obligations, but it’s not a safe society. I don’t want to blame secular people, a lot of religious leaders do not act according to God’s will. Having God in our life shows us really where we are headed, what we’re trying to do about the climate and about what’s going on in the world, the sea, water, air, viruses.
Yet many people don’t believe in God?
We should not force religion, belief has to come within yourself, but we should force certain rules and values that have to be part of society. We cannot ruin the planet. We cannot attack other people by terrorism, or on Internet forums. It ruins society in the name of secularism, liberalism, democracy, but I believe a lot of parts of our life are being hurt by this.
Is scientific progress at odds with religion?
Progress is very, very positive. We embrace any possible kind of technological advances in our life. As I said before it can save lives. Artificial intelligence is going to make life much better and could bring many solutions in health and in bringing people closer together, but you have to be careful. A smart phone is a source of information, like any library. Where you used to have to go through tens of books, now you just open your phone and have the same information on the tip of your finger. This is very positive, but a young boy glued to his telephone is not studying, and it’s not growing and it’s not thinking. It takes away a lot of your own creativity. Technology can help a lot, but we cannot live just on technology. We cannot have artificial intelligence taking over our intelligence. If people stop thinking, if people stop learning, it’s going to just be degradation. Like anything that is in front of our eyes, we have to take it in the right measure and use it the right way.
As a rabbi, what are you doing about that?
I talk a lot about being able to sometimes close your phone, look each other in the eye, feel what’s going on in another person’s life, and actually trying to feel their soul. Parents have to be completely focused today to be able to hear their children. People around us need our support, our care, our empathy. Committing suicide is in danger of becoming the norm, because people don’t have a support base to turn to. They can’t turn to Siri to ask questions like: why should I live? Their phone will not answer that question. There’s nothing like the personal touch, feeling somebody else’s life and helping out where help is needed. We are human beings, not robots. We have feelings. We have needs.
Does the use of drugs worry you?
Drugs and alcohol is really people running away from reality. Sadly, it’s not the case that living in a fantasy world is much better. There is a real world out there with real issues, and you have to confront these issues. Sometimes you can’t do it on your own, you need a community with you. You need your family; you need a teacher, a friend. Drugs may let you forget about all your problems for an hour, but when you land back you realise that the problem is still there, so you have to go back on drugs; and then you become completely dependent. Sadly, it becomes worse and worse until people lose everything, their family, their job. You cannot forever live in a fantasy world. Today, people live two different lives. There’s reality and there’s the virtual world. The virtual world is also telephones, which became like a drug. Leaving the family and trying to have fun outside this homely place is all part of the same problem. You cannot live a double life. Everybody is given one life, and one day you are going to look back and say, what did I achieve? We are sending this message to people, that you have to take responsibility, that if you invest you’re going to see dividends and you’re going to have something back tomorrow. If somebody doesn’t work you can’t expect to have a good life forever, it doesn’t work that way. Sadly, Hollywood is trying to send a different kind of message, that you could have a life of bliss – like you mentioned drugs, or many other different ways.
Are you worried for the Jewish people in the diaspora?
The Jewish people today are at a crossroads. A lot are reconnecting to their tradition and getting very involved, because they realise that this is what’s going to keep them alive, especially in the diaspora. But a lot of people are also now getting tired of anti-Semitism. For example, some French Jews are leaving and just giving up. Some are going to assimilate; they’re going to say, no, forget about it, who needs to be Jewish if it’s dangerous, if it’s suffering. We’re seeing two opposite directions that people are going in, and this is not a healthy thing for a community. There are a lot of things going on around us, but we have to do whatever we can to come back together, and be strong, and not let the outside world dictate to us how we should live.
In conclusion, how would you describe the state of the Jews today?
Sadly, there’s a lot of assimilation in the Jewish world. A lot of Jews don’t appreciate the message of Judaism, and look at religion as something that is restricting, telling them: you cannot do this, you cannot eat this, you cannot go there. The truth is exactly the opposite. The whole point of Judaism is to give us a beautiful way of living. Praying to God is a very uplifting experience. It brings a person appreciation and focus. Keeping the Shabbat, the seventh day, is an incredible opportunity for a family to come together and to think of what really is important in their lives. People don’t appreciate that religion gives a person a healthy, happy, meaningful life.
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