The widening rift became international news last week whena hastily called congress of Jewish leaders on Tuesday elected a newchief rabbi of Russia--Berel Lazar, a Hassidic rabbi in the Lubavitchmovement--at a time when the country already has a chief rabbi.
Just hours later, Vladimir Gusinsky, president of the Russian JewishCongress and an outspoken Kremlin critic, was arrested in connectionwith a fraud investigation.
Gusinsky, since released from jail, is high-powered Russian media mogul and the head of the Russian Jewish Congress. Both he and the congress are major supporters of the original chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich.
For weeks, the rival rabbis have been trading charges in the livelyRussian press of orchestrated Kremlin meddling involving hefty bribes. Both have threatened to unmask the other's alleged past KGB involvement.
On Tuesday, Lazar's election as the second chief rabbi forRussia's estimated 600,000 Jews became the most dramatic evidence yet ofthe long-festering division between the ultra-orthodox Chabad Lubavitchmovement--alligned with Lazar--and the more moderate Orthodox and Reform Jewishorganizations aligned with Shayevich.
In a Friday interview in his synagogue office, near theprison where Gusinsky had been held, Lazar said his election as chief rabbi was entirely unplanned and was the spontaneous decision of grassroots Jewish leaders who had come to Moscow from cities across the world's largest country.
At the meeting, he said attendees vented their dissatisfaction withShayevich and then called upon the rabbis in attendance--overwhelmingly Lubavitchers--to elect a new chief rabbi. They choseLazar, 36, who holds dual Russian and American citizenship.
Speaking over the sounds of the construction nearby of an $11-million Lubavitcher Jewish community center, Lazar said he reluctantlyaccepted the post because, "Shayevich doesn't do anything to help theJewish people. He is like a figure sitting in a museum."
Lazar vehemently denied accusations that his election as chief rabbiwas part of a long-range plan for the Lubavitch to win Russiangovernment recognition as the official face of Judaism in Russia. Suchrecognition is invaluable when it comes to reclaiming the substantialamount of Jewish property seized during the 70 years of atheistic Sovietrule.
Having two chief rabbis is likely to cause considerableconfusion,especially in Russia's farflung provincial cities wherecommunication links lag far behind those in Moscow. What's more, theelection is prompting outcries from mainstream Jewish leaders.
"The leader of Russia's Jews cannot be someone from the ultra-orthodox fringe of Judaism. The (Lubavitch) don't represent a majorityof Jewry worldwide or here," said Rabbi Haim Ben-Yakov, a Moscow-bornIsraeli rabbi serving in Moscow. "To make an American citizen of Italiandescent the head of Russian Jewry is absurd. He cannot express himselfnormally in the Russian language. This is a serious matter."
Lazar, who was raised in Italy, counters that his Russian isadequate for sermons and lectures and vows to start taking lessons ifnecessary.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies it, Gusinsky'sarrest is widely viewed as a Kremlin attempt to silence criticism fromthe mogul's numerous print and broadcast outlets. Similarly, some in theJewish community see the election of a second chief rabbi in oppositionto the Gusinsky-backed Shayevich as the work of Gusinsky's enemies
. Lazar denies that he is being used as the Kremlin's or anyone else'stool to get at Gusinsky.
Gusinsky, whose arrest and imprisonment raised concern over freedom of the press, was released from jail Friday after being charged with embezzlement.
A spokesman for the prosecutor-general 's office said Gusinsky was released after he signed a written pledge that he would not leave the country.
Gusinsky is the head of Media-Most holding company. His media empire includes NTV, Russia's only independent news station, which has often criticized Putin's administration, calling it corrupt. The station has also criticized Russia's armed intervention in Chechnya, launched by Putin.
During an hourlong interview, Shayevich, 62, steadily massaged hisforehead, trying to alleviate a headache he said has been aggravated bythe tension of recent days. In steady tones, he recounted how theLubavitch representatives recently approached him with an offer of realestate and cash worth about $245,000 to step down and endorse Lazar aschief rabbi.
(Lazar acknowledged some kind of offer was discussed butsaid Shayevich solicited it.)
Seemingly pained by the subject, Shayevich denied ever working as aKGB agent in his years in the 1980s as the Soviet Union's only official rabbi.
"In America, they wrote that I was the Red rabbi. Here, myparishioners reported to the KGB that I was propagating Zionism," saidShayevich, a lanky man with a gentle manner who went on to contrastcommunist oppression with today's conflict. "This is much worse thanSoviet times. Now, I am battling my brothers. This is a terrible task."