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 the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, suffering from internal bleeding and other injuries.

In an interview earlier this week, Berkowitz, 28, said he is convinced the Dec. 23 attack by two ``big, beefy guys'' was ordered by leaders of a rival Jewish religious group, but acknowledged he has no proof.

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

The local prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into criminal hooliganism, but the police investigator in the case, Ilya Ageyev, said Tuesday ``only God knows'' when the case might be closed.

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

Berkowitz said two gentile men dragged him down into the synagogue's basement, 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 not communicate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldschmidt said he had no plans to beef up security, which already includes several uniformed guards and a metal detector designed to prevent 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 Choral Synagogue insiders, Berkowitz cited the ease with which the attackers fled and other worshippers' response. Berkowitz said witnesses, including Goldschmidt, were aware of what was happening but did nothing to stop it.

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

Goldschmidt denied being a witness.

Whatever the truth in the matter, some leaders worry the simmering feud and the negative publicity it brings to Russian Jewry will make their 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 really compromising ourselves,'' said Tankred Golenpolsky, publisher of the Russian-language Evreiskaya Gazeta (Jewish Newspaper). ``I think these minor, stinky events will continue to happen until there is some decision among the Jews themselves that this has to stop.''

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

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

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

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

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

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