Moscow chief rabbi in exile after refusing to back Putin’s war on Ukraine, insider says

(JTA) — As the head of a major European rabbinical group, Pinchas Goldschmidt regularly travels in and out of Moscow, where he has worked since 1993 as the city’s chief rabbi.

But when he left most recently, two weeks after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, he did so with no firm plan to return. And now he is officially working in exile after being pressured by Russian authorities to support the war, according to his daughter-in-law.

I can finally share that my in-laws, Chief Rabbi of Moscow @PinchasRabbi and Rabbanit Dara Goldschmidt, were put under pressure by the authorities to publicly support the “special operation” in Ukraine – and refused,” Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt tweeted on Tuesday.

Chizik-Goldschmidt, a journalist who lives in New York, shared a report from French newspaper Le Figaro that detailed her father-in-law’s experience, which included a fundraising stint in Western Europe followed by a visit with his own father in Israel. , where he remains today.

Contacted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Goldschmidt declined to comment or answer questions about his return to Russia, where he was re-elected on Tuesday as head of the Moscow Choral Synagogue.

Goldschmidt was not an outspoken critic of the war, although Le Figaro reported that he was concerned enough about it to contact rabbis in neighboring Moldova in mid-February, days before Russia invaded. Ukraine, to warn them of a potential influx of refugees. .

Other chief rabbis of Russia, including the country’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, remained in the country even after criticizing the war.

But Goldschmidt’s status in Russia has been undermined by politics in the past.

In 2005, Goldschmidt, present in Moscow since 1989, was suddenly refused entry into the country. It took several weeks before he was allowed to return. Authorities gave no official explanation for the denial of entry, but some officials made unspecified references to “national security concerns”.

Goldschmidt declined to comment, but the case coincided with a power struggle that ended with Lazar and his Chabad-affiliated rabbis dominating the landscape of Russian Jewish institutional life.

Goldschmidt, a Swiss-born rabbi who is not affiliated with Chabad, was eventually allowed to enter Moscow, but his career trajectory has increasingly centered on Western Europe. He has led the Conference of European Rabbis since 2011.

Pope Francis greets Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt during an international peace meeting in Rome, Oct. 7, 2021. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

According to the Jerusalem Post, Goldschmidt is staying in Israel. Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef wrote a letter to leaders of Russian Jewish communities asking them to respect Goldschmidt’s authority even if he is “unable to remain in his congregation,” he said. revealed the Post on Tuesday.

“The rabbinical court he headed continues to operate under his direction and provide an appropriate response to those in need,” they wrote.

Back in Moscow, Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia distinguished itself from other religious groups in its outspoken opposition to the war.

Lazar himself wrote in a statement: “Stop the madness so no one dies again.” And he criticized Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for saying Adolf Hitler was of Jewish descent. (The unsubstantiated claim was Lavrov’s attempt to draw analogies between the leader of Nazi Germany and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish.)

“It would be nice if he apologized to the Jews and just admitted he was wrong,” Lazar wrote of Lavrov.

It was an unusual rebuke from Lazar, who is widely seen to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a member of the dictator’s inner circle.

The fact that this happened in the context of the war in Ukraine, which sparked a witch hunt against alleged traitors in both countries, only heightened tensions around this issue.

This attitude of Lazar’s organization is markedly different from the line taken by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose chief bishop, Patriarch Kirill, is a strong supporter of Putin’s campaign in Ukraine.

Heads of Russian Muslim groups, representing millions of worshipers, also endorsed the war, including Talgat Tajuddin, head of Russia’s Central Muslim Spiritual Council, Ismail Berdiyev, head of the North Caucasus Muslim Coordination Center, and Albir Krganov, the head of the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia.

Both Lazar and Goldschmidt confirmed that thousands of Jews have left Russia since the war broke out. In an interview with Deutche Welle last week, Goldschmidt said a “very significant part” of Russia’s Jewish community, which numbered 155,000 members according to a 2020 demographic survey, had left and another “significant part was considering to leave “.

Exterior view of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, one of the major synagogues in Russia and the former Soviet Union. (Universal History Archive/Universal Pictures Group via Getty Images)

Other rabbis in Russia have also spoken publicly about the circumstances leading to the emigration. Boruch Gorin, an influential Chabad rabbi living in Moscow and spokesperson for Lazar, has publicly stated that he was citing “a very worrying political and social climate.”

Driving out rabbis and potentially shutting down synagogues, which Russian authorities have done in the past to retaliate against dissent, would not help the popularity of the war, which is already having an increasingly polarizing effect on Russian society.

But even Russia’s Chabad rabbis are not untouchable under Putin. At least eight of them, all foreigners staying in Russia on clergy visas, have been deported since 2008 or had their visas canceled or not extended for various reasons, including posing a threat to national security.

These rabbis were expelled from Russia despite public protests from Lazar’s organization, demonstrating both the limits of Lazar’s influence on politics and the vulnerability of Jews and their communal leaders to the whims of Russian justice or politicians who control it.

But punishing rabbis or any other clergy for not toeing the party line would not be a good idea for Putin right now. Externally and, perhaps more crucially, internally, his government said it invaded Ukraine on February 24 to “denazify” it, referring to what Putin called a prevalence of far-right ideas and supporters in Ukraine.

Gorin, Lazar’s spokesman, said Russian authorities have not targeted foreign rabbis since the start of the war.

Gorin told JTA that he was unaware of any pressure exerted directly on Goldschmidt or any other rabbi, and that he was surprised by the reports regarding Goldschmidt.

“It would be surprising to learn that Rabbi Goldschmidt was under pressure,” Gorin said.

Goldschmidt’s stepdaughter story tells a different story. “The pain and fear in our family over the past few months is beyond words,” she tweeted.

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