What I Found in Library Rebbe Schneerson Claimed as His — and Why Chabad Feud Rages

Hasidic Trove on Display in Moscow as Court Fight Continues

Our Man in Moscow: Paul Berger flashes the card that gave him access to the Schneersohn archive at a new Moscow Jewish  museum.
martyna starosta
Our Man in Moscow: Paul Berger flashes the card that gave him access to the Schneersohn archive at a new Moscow Jewish museum.

By Paul Berger

Published February 18, 2014, issue of February 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It takes less than 10 minutes, a passport and the help of a friendly librarian to hold in your hands one of thousands of religious texts at the heart of an international legal battle between Russia and America.

That’s what I found when I traveled in January to Moscow, where I came face to face with dozens of fragile, beautifully illustrated books, some with intricate notes handwritten in Hebrew around the text.

I had come to test a compromise that President Vladimir Putin offered last year to solve a decades-long dispute between the Russian government and American leaders of the large Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement based in New York.

The two sides have argued for decades over a library and an archive, known collectively as the Schneersohn Collection, assembled by the early rabbinic leaders of Chabad.

In recent years, the dispute has spilled over into secular American life. It has worsened America’s already strained diplomatic relations with Russia, triggered an art-lending freeze between major Russian and American museums, and, most recently, led to a lawsuit filed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture in a Moscow court against the Library of Congress.

While the fight over the Schneersohn Collection seems intractable from New York, in Moscow the path toward a resolution appears to be in sight.

The Schneersohn Library, which was nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution, has spent most of the past century at the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, in Moscow.

Chabad’s leaders have insisted for more than 20 years that the books be returned to their world headquarters in Brooklyn.

Then, last February, Putin suggested a third way: The Schneersohn books would leave the Russian State Library. But instead of disappearing overseas, they would be moved to Moscow’s new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a $50 million Chabad-controlled institution that was partly bankrolled by Russian oligarchs. The first delivery of several hundred books arrived at the museum last June.

Compromising Position: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin crosses himself at a 2013 ceremony marking the handover of the Schneersohn library in Moscow.
Getty Images
Compromising Position: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin crosses himself at a 2013 ceremony marking the handover of the Schneersohn library in Moscow.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.