Russian Chief Rabbi Tells Jews To Back Off on Criticizing Vladimir Putin

Berel Lazar Backs Leader on Hasidic Trove and Gay Rights

Don’t Say No: Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, right, speaks to journalists at the Forward’s offices in lower Manhattan.
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Don’t Say No: Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, right, speaks to journalists at the Forward’s offices in lower Manhattan.

By Paul Berger

Published September 09, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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He also scorned a recent Russian announcement of financial incentives to lure more Jews to the Jewish autonomous region, Birobidzhan.

Lazar said there are few opportunities for young people in Birobidzhan and the freezing climate is terrible. “We are going to support Jews there until the last one leaves and then shut the light,” Lazar said.

Lazar played down his links with the Kremlin. But there is little doubt that Chabad has been wildly successful in Russia and other former Soviet republics thanks to close ties with business and political elites.

On August 28, Lazar attended the opening of a new $4.5 million community center and synagogue in the center of Novosibirsk. The synagogue, which Lazar said was financed mostly by domestic donors, is the first ever to exist in the town.

“It is the pride of the Jewish community that even in Russia we are able to build such buildings,” Lazar said.

Moscow’s new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in November, cost $50 million and was partly funded by oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin. Lazar said books from the Schneerson Library are being transferred to the museum each month. It will take about six months before the transfer is complete.

Putin’s proposal, made in February, was denounced by lawyers acting on behalf of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, based in New York.

The Aguch, as it is known, maintains that the library, which was nationalized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, belongs to Chabad in America.

Two years ago, Royce Lamberth, a federal judge in Washington D.C., ruled that the collection had to be returned to Chabad. In retaliation, the Russian government instructed museums to stop lending artwork to their American counterparts in case they were seized by Chabad’s lawyers.

In January, Lamberth imposed a $50,000-per-day fine on Russia for each day it did not return the books. Russia’s Ministry of Culture and the Russian State Library retaliated by filing a lawsuit in a Moscow court against the Library of Congress.

The suit seeks the return of seven books from the Schneerson Library that it loaned to the Library of Congress during the mid-1990s.

The Aguch is also suing Russia for the return of the Schneerson Archive, a collection of books, manuscripts and handwritten documents of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, which was seized by the Nazis during World War II and then captured by the Red Army. Lazar said that Russian officials have suggested that the archive too might end up in the Moscow museum, but no decision has yet been reached.


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