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Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia

(Federatsiia Evreiskikh Obshchin Rossii; FEOR), the umbrella organization of various associations established by the Ḥabad (Lubavitch) movement in 1998–1999. Officially, these associations and their unifying body surfaced later than the other large umbrella organizations—the Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations of the USSR (Va‘ad), the Russian Jewish Congress (REK), and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia (KEROOR). In fact, the Ḥabad associations were preceded by a lengthy period during which the movement developed its organizations first in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and then in the Soviet successor states (FSU).

Small Lubavitch groups had survived in the USSR (in Moscow, Leningrad, and, perhaps most significantly, in Samarkand and Tashkent). Ḥabad headquarters in the United States took advantage of perestroika and glasnost to send emissaries to reestablish overt contact. In 1988 a yeshiva, Tomkhe Temimim Lubavitch, was opened illegally (that is, without registration) in the building of the Mar’ina Roshcha Synagogue in Moscow. Over the next two years, Ḥabad established yeshivas in Leningrad, Tbilisi, and Dnipropetrovs’k, without encountering interference from the authorities. According to Ḥabad sources, the government extended goodwill toward the movement because it encouraged Jews to remain where they were, in contrast to other Jewish organizations that encouraged emigration to Israel.

During the final period of Soviet rule, Ḥabad established connections with the authorities at the very top level. Early in 1991, Lubavitch Rabbi Berl Lazar met Boris Yeltsin, then chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet and de facto president of the Russian Republic. They discussed the return of synagogues and the opening of religious schools. According to Lazar, when Yeltsin became president of the Russian Federation, he quickly transformed his promises into law.

In 1993, the Rabbinical Alliance of the Commonwealth of Independent States was created under Lazar’s chairmanship. The Ḥabad rabbis of Russia, the majority of the rabbis of Ukraine, and rabbis from other successor states became members. Another important milestone in Ḥabad’s activities in Russia was Lazar’s collaboration with Israeli diamond magnate Lev Levaev (b. 1956 in Tashkent). In 1995 Levaev founded the Or Avner Fund and educational network, which became the major sponsor of Ḥabad in Russia. Among others, it developed a program to send rabbinical students to places with small Jewish populations.

Ḥabad communities avoided joining other religious umbrella organizations. At the same time, in 1996 Lazar and Levaev participated in creating REK. In early 1998, four Ḥabad communities established the Religious Association of Ḥabad Lubavitch Hasidim (FEOR). By the end of 1998, Ḥabad had strengthened its position in Russia noticeably. At the same time, the alienation was mounting between KEROOR, which included Reform Jewish communities in its membership, and Ḥabad, which rejected cooperation with non-Orthodox Jewish organizations. In particular, the conflict between Ḥabad and the Moscow mainstream rabbinate became exacerbated and threatened to split the community.

In 1999, Ḥabad, in contrast to the other Jewish organizations, firmly supported Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s policy in Chechnya. In the struggle with Vladimir Gusinskii’s media empire, which was sharply critical of Putin’s policies in that region, the Kremlin viewed FEOR as an alternative to REK, which Gusinskii headed. It has been suggested that it was the Kremlin’s support that enabled FEOR to transform itself from a Hasidic into a general Jewish organization, and to claim that it represented the interests of Russian Jewry as a whole.

In 2000, the number of communities joining FEOR grew quickly. Several factors promoted this process: the support given to FEOR by federal and local authorities; FEOR’s extensive financial resources; its aggressive efforts to enlist communities; and its willingness to accept communities so long as they were not explicitly identified with a non-Orthodox form of Judaism. Meanwhile, the long-latent schism in Russian Jewish organizational life surfaced and became more profound. A struggle broke out over sources of financing, the possession of communal property, and the right to represent all of Russian Jewry.

In June 2000, a “unifying” Congress of Russia’s Jewish Communities was convened. Seventy communities belonging to FEOR, four belonging to KEROOR, and a number of organizations belonging to the Va‘ad (which collaborated with FEOR) participated. The Ḥabad rabbis present, of whom about half did not hold Russian citizenship, elected Lazar as chief rabbi of Russia by a vote of 25 to 1. This provoked a sharp conflict among the Jewish associations. The main umbrella organizations and a number of regional and local associations flatly rejected his election and continued to consider Rabbi Adol’f Shaevich as chief rabbi.

By 2006, FEOR claimed to have almost 200 member communities. While it paid primary attention to education, it attributed considerable importance to cultural and social activity, notably material aid to weaker strata among the community. It continued to give support to the Putin regime and to deny or play down the danger of Russian antisemitism. Its very existence enabled the Russian Federation authorities to apply pressure on the less pliant, mostly secular organizations with which FEOR engaged in perennial competition for political and economic control of Russian Jewish life.

Suggested Reading

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, ed., Jewish Politics and Community Building in the Former Soviet Union, special issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review 14.1–2 (Spring 2002), see esp. Vladimir (Ze’ev) Khanin, “Institutionalization of the Post-Communist Jewish Movement: Organizational Structures, Ruling Elites, and Political Conflicts” (pp. 5–28), Eugene Satanovsky (Yevgenii Satanovskii), “Organized National Life of Russian Jews in the Late Soviet and Post-Soviet Era: A View from Moscow” (pp. 29–45), and Theodore H. Friedgut, “The Phoenix Revisited: The Jewish Community of Russia since Perestroika; A View from Jerusalem” (pp. 47–80).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson