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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


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