Why you should care

Because mixing politics and religion is always a tricky game.

It’s springtime at the Kremlin, Russia’s center of government. The who’s who of Moscow are gathered in a huge ballroom, shuffling around in their gold-plated chairs, waiting for President Vladimir Putin to take the podium, where he will announce the annexation of Crimea. The room is a sea of dark suits, blue ties and gray hair. Except for one man, who sports a big furry hat with a golden spike. Below it: small glasses, a foot-long beard and a smile.

He’s Berel Lazar, Russia’s Chief Rabbi and one of Putin’s most trusted confidants.

Turns out Putin has a surprising affinity for the Jewish cause, which Italian-born, American-raised Lazar has leveraged, in return for his fierce loyalty, to help his community flourish, bringing in synagogues, schools and Jewish cultural centers. His combination of fervent religiosity and political machinations makes him one of Russia’s most divisive public figures. “Today,” Lazar writes OZY over email, “thank G-d, there is a renaissance of Jewish life in Russia.”

Little-Known Religious Leaders: First in a Series

If the phoenix is rising, it’s from a mountain of painful, troubled ashes: Historically, Jews have not been treated particularly well behind the Iron Curtain. In the 14th century, Russian Jews were accused of causing the Black Plague by poisoning wells. Some 500 years later, Czar Nicholas I tried to conscript 12-year-old Jewish children into his military. Pogroms, in which Jews were killed or expellled from their homes, were frequent. And in the Communist 20th century, Jewish schools and synagogues were shut down. Oh, and a disproportionate percentage of the victims of Stalin’s purges were Jewish.

“Of course one would call this progress,” says David Shneer, chair in Jewish history and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “How often has a Russian leader had a so-called ‘court Jew’ so public and visible?” And indeed, today’s Russia sees religion in the open more and more, from Muslims celebrating holidays publicly to Buddhist lamas visiting the country.

But back in 1989, as the Cold War thawed, Lazar arrived from New York to a country that looked very different. The nation was mostly bereft of its Jewish community, as many flocked to Israel. Yet Lazar, the son of two Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries sent to Italy to spread the word of the faith, felt a magnetic pull from Russia: As a child, he says, he was “raised on the stories of Jewish heroism and self-sacrifice behind the Iron Curtain.” After rabbinical school, he got an offer to teach the Torah … for an underground network of Jews in the Soviet Union. He “jumped at the opportunity.”

The tale of the modern Jewish diaspora spans continents and encompasses the migratory patterns of millions — Jews rushing to Israel from Ethiopia, the U.S. and even India; American Jews developing their own particular form of the faith, emphasizing bar and bat mitzvahs for teenagers and Hanukkah. Amid that story, though, the Russian Jews are mostly forgotten, says Shneer. Despite this, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee estimates there are around 600,000 Jews in Russia and as many as half a million in Ukraine.

That dispersal highlights an interesting divide between Lazar’s form of Judaism and modern Reform Judaism. Lazar, a Chabad Hasidic Orthodox Jew — thoroughly traditional, with 14 children — is not a public fan of Reform Judaism. Practitioners of the contemporary version of the religion in turn “don’t recognize” him as Chief Rabbi, says Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. (Lazar tells us modern forms of the religion simply “haven’t caught on much” with his Russian flock, who see those practices as “foreign.”)

The once-underground rabbi met our shirtless friend when he was elected Chief Rabbi; years into the relationship, Lazar recalls a story Putin once told him. (The president’s office did not return requests for comment.) According to the rabbi, Putin was often left home alone while his impoverished parents rushed around trying to make ends meet. His neighbors, Lazar tells, were kind Hasidic Jews who ensured little Vladimir had a hot meal and a place to rest.

Not everyone believes that Lazar’s is a heroic tale of anti-anti-Semitism. For one, Putin’s name is not always synonymous with religious freedom, to say the least; he’s been plagued by accusations of continued oppression and of favoring the Russian Orthodox Church over all other denominations. The Pew Research Center ranks Russia as “very high” among nations with “social hostilities” regarding religion. Which might suggest that Putin has some more prosaic, even Machiavellian, reasons for courting Lazar. Take Putin’s speech during International Holocaust Memorial Day at Moscow’s Jewish museum — to which Lazar invited him — which he used to insinuate that Ukrainian nationalists were anti-Semitic by calling them “Banderites,” a reference to the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. In a clean feint, he cited said anti-Semitism as a thoroughly hearty justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

This coziness of Lazar and Putin’s relationship angers many Jews. “It is a mistake for a rabbi to become a tool or a puppet of secular powers,” Yoffie says. “Rabbi Lazar owes allegiance to God, not to Mr. Putin.” To this, Lazar tells us he meets with Putin “as a matter of duty.” And that the Jewish faith mandates faith to God — but to community and nation as well.

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