When Vladimir Putin offers you a gift — you accept it.
That’s according to Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, who said he had to accept Putin’s offer to move a contested Jewish library to a new Jewish museum in Moscow controlled by Chabad in Russia.
The Schneerson Library, a collection amassed by the early rabbinic leaders of the Chabad Hasidic movement, has been at the center of a decades-long legal battle between Chabad’s American leadership and the Russian government.
Putin’s decision to entrust the library to Chabad in Russia pitted the Hasidic movement’s representatives in New York against its brethren in Moscow, sparking a testy war of words earlier this year. But Lazar said he had no choice.
“The president didn’t ask us, he just told us” to accept the books, said Lazar, who is himself a Chabad rabbi. “Saying no to the Russian president, in general, is not something done in Russia.”
Lazar spoke about the library during a wide-ranging interview at the Forward’s New York offices on August 30, in which he also discussed the health of Russia’s Jewish community and defended Russia’s controversial new anti-gay law.
Although Lazar, who has close ties to the Kremlin and to Jewish oligarchs, is probably the most powerful religious Jewish figure in Russia, he is personable and unassuming. He arrived at the Forward offices without an entourage and interrupted the interview several times to take phone calls about his hat and coat, which he had left in a rented car, and to talk to his children in Yiddish.
His answers were straightforward. Mainly, he criticized America’s belief that legal and political pressure could force Russia to change. He said that Americans failed to understand Russian culture, society or the Russian soul.
Sometimes, the chief rabbi rejected Kremlin initiatives too. He dismissed Russia’s 2010 census, which reported just 156,00 Jews in Russia. He said the number is artificially low because census workers only asked people for their nationality. And many Jews and people with Jewish backgrounds, he said, answer simply “Russian.”
“We believe there are probably around a million” Jews in Russia, Lazar said, by which he meant people with a Jewish parent or grandparent.