No Time Like the Present for Russian Jews, Moscow Chief Rabbi Says
Written by Andrew Friedman/TPS on March 20, 2018
Judaism in Russia has undergone a fundamental overhaul since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the country’s Jews enjoying the greatest freedom in its history, Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) Monday
In a one-on-one session during a snap visit to Jerusalem, Lazar said that whereas approximately 80 percent of Soviet Jews intermarried, 60-70 percent millennial Jews in Russia say they want to marry Jews. Lazar said Jews today are safer in Russia than anywhere in Europe, and that the resurgence of Judaism in the country since the fall of Communism is nothing less than “astounding.”
“Russian Jews today understand better than anyone what Pesach is, because they themselves ‘left Egypt,’” Lazar said, using the Hebrew word for the holiday. “The young generation really understands that their parents had grown up in a type of slavery – they had no freedom of choice, they were forced to think a certain way and to live in fear.
“I don’t think there is anyone in Russia today who lives in fear. At least, I don’t see it. People have a new life; the young generation today feel they are living in a different country than the one their parents grew up in. They have diff attitudes – towards business, culture, moving somewhere else, the way they bring up children. So in a very real sense they left a kind of jail that their parents lived in.
“So when it comes to Pesach, they really ‘get it.’ They feel their own liberation,” Lazar said.
If, to Western eyes, Lazar’s portrayal of Russia today appears to be overly optimistic – some might say his view is influenced by his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin – the rabbi cautions against applying Western cultural standards when evaluating situations in non-Western countries.
For example, take Putin’s controversial electoral victory on Sunday, and particularly Putin’s intimidation and sidelining of opposition candidates during the campaign. Asked whether Russia is slipping back from the promise he inherited when he arrived in Moscow as a young rabbi in 1990 – when terms like glasnost and perestroika (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s phrases for his dual programs to “open up” and “restructure” the country) heralded a sharp break from Communism – Lazar admitted that the election “looked bad” when viewed from afar.
But he added that it is a mistake both to lionise the post-Soviet era as the “good old days” and to bemoan the current period.
“Is Russia slipping back into becoming a ‘fear society’ (former Prisoner of Zion [and 2018 Israel Prize laureate] Natan Sharansky’s phrase to describe a society in which people are afraid to speak freely)? I suppose there are two ways to answer that.
“If I was a human rights activist, I would say that under (former President Boris) Yeltsin, perhaps even under Gorbachev, things looked like they were much more free than they are today. There were more American – Coke, McDonalds, etc., there was much more freedom of the press. It felt like the more you wrote against Russia, the cooler you were. But it felt that Russia was really going down in a spiral, that Russia was really falling apart.
“But I’m not a human rights activist, I’m a rabbi. If you ask me about the Jewish community and about Jewish life – the freedom to be proud of your religion, to celebrate your religion, of doing something Jewish in public, like lighting a Chanukah menorah or building a synagogue in a prominent place, I don’t think there’s ever been such a positive time in history for Jews in Russia.”