Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar has harsh words for Israeli society, particularly the ultra-Orthodox community, in regards to its treatment of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel.
In an interview to the European rabbinical publication ‘Hanaaseh Vehanishma’ ahead of Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Lazar was asked whether he encouraged immigration from Russia to Israel. “The grim reality is that many of the Jews who came to Israel have lost their grip on faith. Sadly, the haredi community did not embrace them,” he replied.
Lazar went on to say that “some action is being taken regarding this matter, but barely. This is why we don’t encourage immigration to Israel. Only when a Jew feels that he is strong enough and ready, only then do we give our blessing for him to immigrate.”
Lazar recalled how, when he was visiting a Russian city, a local Jew asked him if he should immigrate to Israel. Lazar said he told the man that the Torah “is more interested in how we are as Jews than where we reside. So ask yourself – where can you maintain yourself spiritually? You mustn’t immigrate when you are confused and insecure.”
Who is to blame?
The answer, to Lazar at least, is clear. “The Israeli public is very distant towards Russian immigrants,” he asserts. “It is true that at first Russians appear distant, but this is just their outer shell, on the inside the crave contact and acceptance. As soon as someone shows them true acceptance, they open up.”
Lazar also discussed the image prevalent amongst Israelis of Russian immigrants. “The origin of this can be traced to undesirable acts carried out by immigrants who were not necessarily Jewish. It’s a sad phenomenon.”
Lazar believes that at least 40% of Russian immigrants to Israel are not Jewish. He evoked the memory of the late Chabad leader, Rabbi Menachem Shniarson, who encouraged Jewish immigration to Israel but also warned of gentile infiltration.
According to Lazar, those who return to Russia actually strengthened their Jewish faith. “There are 50,000 Jews who returned to Moscow alone. And I hear stories from them about how badly they were treated.”
‘Failed to see potential of Russian immigration’
Lazar says that the reason for the failure of Russian integration is the fact that the immigrants were not prepared for their new lives, as well as the cold shoulder they got from the haredi community. This, he said, pushed them into the embrace of Israel’s secular public.
“The Israeli public failed to see the potential in the Russian immigration, they assumed that they were a sort of ‘anti-Jewish’ when in fact they were just Jews who were trying to reestablish connections to the religion after being cut off,” said Lazar, who adds that it’s not too late. “We can still rectify the situation and return them to the embrace of the Torah.”
In the interview, Lazar pointed out what he thought to be the right approach to bring Russian immigrants in Israel closer to God. “When you approach a Russian immigrant, it’s important to remember not to make him feel pressured or coerced to do something, that approach reminds him of the Soviet regime.”
Lazar also commented on the Russian leadership. Since the collapse of the iron curtain, he says, Jews have been treated well in Russia. He does point out that the treatment became even better as soon as Vladimir Putin became president, which continues even today with his successor Dmitry Medvedev.
“He went out of his way to express sympathy towards Judaism, and he completely revolutionized many related fields,” said Lazar, noting the directive issued by Putin that Yeshiva studies would be considered as academic.
Lazar wanted to emphasize that the Russian authorities officially recognize only the ultra-Orthodox communities. “The Jewish community that was here 50 years ago was Orthodox, and the Russian authorities recognize it as the original Judaism.
“Even the gentiles understand that religion is not meant to be divisive, and it’s a shame that not all Jews understand this. The official recognition helps our struggle against Reform and Conservative sects, who seek to take over Judaism.”