The widening rift became international news last week when a hastily called congress of Jewish leaders on Tuesday elected a new chief rabbi of Russia--Berel Lazar, a Hassidic rabbi in the Lubavitch movement--at a time when the country already has a chief rabbi.
Just hours later, Vladimir Gusinsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress and an outspoken Kremlin critic, was arrested in connection with 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 lively Russian 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 for Russia's estimated 600,000 Jews became the most dramatic evidence yet of the long-festering division between the ultra-orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement--alligned with Lazar--and the more moderate Orthodox and Reform Jewish organizations aligned with Shayevich.
In a Friday interview in his synagogue office, near the prison 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 with Shayevich and then called upon the rabbis in attendance--overwhelmingly Lubavitchers--to elect a new chief rabbi. They chose Lazar, 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 reluctantly accepted the post because, "Shayevich doesn't do anything to help the Jewish people. He is like a figure sitting in a museum."
Lazar vehemently denied accusations that his election as chief rabbi was part of a long-range plan for the Lubavitch to win Russian government recognition as the official face of Judaism in Russia. Such recognition is invaluable when it comes to reclaiming the substantial amount of Jewish property seized during the 70 years of atheistic Soviet rule.
Having two chief rabbis is likely to cause considerable confusion,especially in Russia's farflung provincial cities where communication links lag far behind those in Moscow. What's more, the election 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 majority of Jewry worldwide or here," said Rabbi Haim Ben-Yakov, a Moscow-born Israeli rabbi serving in Moscow. "To make an American citizen of Italian descent the head of Russian Jewry is absurd. He cannot express himself normally in the Russian language. This is a serious matter."
Lazar, who was raised in Italy, counters that his Russian is adequate for sermons and lectures and vows to start taking lessons if necessary.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies it, Gusinsky's arrest is widely viewed as a Kremlin attempt to silence criticism from the mogul's numerous print and broadcast outlets. Similarly, some in the Jewish community see the election of a second chief rabbi in opposition to 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's tool 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 by the tension of recent days. In steady tones, he recounted how the Lubavitch representatives recently approached him with an offer of real estate and cash worth about $245,000 to step down and endorse Lazar as chief rabbi.
(Lazar acknowledged some kind of offer was discussed but said Shayevich solicited it.)
Seemingly pained by the subject, Shayevich denied ever working as a KGB 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, my parishioners reported to the KGB that I was propagating Zionism," said Shayevich, a lanky man with a gentle manner who went on to contrast communist oppression with today's conflict. "This is much worse than Soviet times. Now, I am battling my brothers. This is a terrible task."