MOSCOW, Jan. 11 (RNS) -- The attempted drowning of an American Jewish leader in a synagogue's ritual bath during Hanukkah is drawing fresh attention to an increasingly shrill feud between two Russian Jewish groups.

The bizarre attack left Avraham Berkowitz, an American who heads theFederation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, sufferingfrom internal bleeding and other injuries.

In an interview earlier this week, Berkowitz, 28, said he isconvinced the Dec. 23 attack by two ``big, beefy guys'' was ordered byleaders of a rival Jewish religious group, but acknowledged he has noproof.

``It is unfortunate that it was not an anti-Semitic attack,'' saidBerkowitz, a member of the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch movement who movedto Moscow last year with his wife and infant daughter. ``This is unheardof in the Jewish world -- to send non-Jews to beat a Jew. In Russia, ifyou tell three big guys to beat a Jew, they take it as a license to killhim.''

The local prosecutor's office has opened an investigation intocriminal hooliganism, but the police investigator in the case, IlyaAgeyev, said Tuesday ``only God knows'' when the case might beclosed.

Ageyev said he had no suspects, no motive for the attack and a shakygrasp of what actually happened.

Berkowitz said two gentile men dragged him down into the synagogue'sbasement, where they threw him into the mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath site) while he was still wearing his prayer shawl and winter overcoat. The men held him underwater for a time until Berkowitz, a former lifeguard, did the``deadman's float,'' he said.

The attackers and Berkowitz, who speaks Russian poorly, did notcommunicate.

But Berkowitz said he is certain the men were hired by peopleunhappy with his worshipping in the Choral Synagogue.

The Choral Synagogue is funded, in part, by the Russian JewishCongress and is home to the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizationsand Associations in Russia as well as Russia's longtime chief rabbi,Adolf Shayevich.

These organizations compete with Berkowitz's Lubavitch-dominatedFederation and Lubavitch Rabbi Berel Lazar, who, as of last summer, alsoclaims the title of chief rabbi of Russia's estimated 600,000 Jews.

Lazar appears to have the backing of the administration of RussianPresident Vladimir Putin, who joined the rabbi last month for thelighting of a Lubavitch-sponsored Hanukkah menorah.

Long-standing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch and theOrthodox and Reform organizations aligned with Shayevich reached newlevels in recent months as tussles broke out in Jewish communitiesacross Russia for control of local property and power. In Moscow,Russia's lively press chronicles the rival rabbis' feuding withaccusations of Kremlin meddling, hefty bribes and past KGB involvement.

One of the most outspoken critics of the Lubavitcher tactics ofwooing Kremlin support is Choral Synagogue Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt.While denying any knowledge of who might have organized the attack inhis synagogue, Goldschmidt said ``the mostly likely'' reason wasdiscontent within the synagogue with Berkowitz and other Lubavitchers.

Goldschmidt said he had no plans to beef up security, which alreadyincludes several uniformed guards and a metal detector designed toprevent a repeat of the bomb and knife attacks of recent years.

``The security is not geared toward internal brawls,'' he said.

In arguing for his theory the mikveh attack was the work of ChoralSynagogue insiders, Berkowitz cited the ease with which the attackersfled and other worshippers' response. Berkowitz said witnesses,including Goldschmidt, were aware of what was happening but did nothingto stop it.

``I saw the rabbi,'' said Berkowitz, describing how he was draggedaway. ``I begged him to help me.''

Goldschmidt denied being a witness.

Whatever the truth in the matter, some leaders worry the simmeringfeud and the negative publicity it brings to Russian Jewry will maketheir position all the more precarious in a country known, even today,for deep-seated, sometimes deadly anti-Semitism.

``In a country which is not sympathetic to Jews, we are reallycompromising ourselves,'' said Tankred Golenpolsky, publisher of theRussian-language Evreiskaya Gazeta (Jewish Newspaper). ``I think theseminor, stinky events will continue to happen until there is somedecision among the Jews themselves that this has to stop.''

Golenpolsky said he worries the infighting may cause aidorganizations to rethink their funding policies for Russian Jews, whoare heavily dependent on foreign Jewish organizations.

``The foreigners may start giving money directly to organizationsrather than to umbrella organizations,'' said Golenpolsky. ``This is away out in the meantime. No one wants to take sides because no one knowswho will win.''

Joel Golovensky, director of the American Jewish Joint DistributionCommittee Inc. for Russia, said he hasn't heard of any such changes andhopes they don't occur. The Joint Committee is by far the leading Jewishnongovernment organization working in Russia.

Golovenksy, who sat next to Berkowitz in the synagogue the day ofthe attack and helped him recover afterwards, said he is disturbed bythe infighting and is trying to organize a peacemaking meeting for theend of January.

``This intense conflict in Moscow is criminal. There is so much todo here. There is room for everybody to have success,'' Golovensky said.

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