Moscow rabbi says Russian Jewish community being held ‘hostage’

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt woke up to a frightening reality that reminded him of the “dark days of the Iron Curtain.”

By Hannan Greenwood, Israel Hayom via JNS

On March 7, about a week-and-a-half after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who was then still the chief rabbi of Moscow, and his wife Dara left their home in the Russian capital, hoping to get out of the country as quickly as possible.

“We got to the Moscow airport, each of us carrying a single suitcase, and that was it,” Goldschmidt says in an interview with Israel Hayom’s weekend magazine.

“At the airport police stopped us and asked us why we were leaving. I explained that my father was in the hospital in Israel, and I wanted to visit him. After being questioned briefly, we flew to Budapest via Istanbul, and since then we haven’t returned to Russia,” he says.

“If they ever make a movie about us leaving, they’ll portray it as if it was in the middle of the night. But the truth is, we left at midday. Less colorful, I know,” he adds.

Goldschmidt, 59, speaks to Israel Hayom from his new office in the Kanfei Nesherim neighborhood of Jerusalem, which he received as president of the Conference of European Rabbis. Five months after he left/fled Russia—which has changed its face and turned into what he describes as “Iran”—he says that, for the first time in decades, he feels at ease.

“Suddenly, I don’t have to stay quiet,” he says, smiling.

He sits in front of a half-empty bookshelf, which holds a Talmud set and a few other books. These days, he is busy dealing with refugees from Ukraine. He chooses his words carefully, making plenty of controversial remarks, and still, after 33 years of experience in Russia, it’s obvious that he isn’t allowing himself to reveal everything that went on behind the scenes.

Q: Are you at peace with your decision to leave Russia?

“I’ve asked myself that same question several times, but day by day, I’m realizing I did the right thing—for the Jewish community too. Now I’m in a place where I can help them, and I can talk freely. I’m much calmer now because it’s a relief to talk after not being able to express myself for years.

“If I were still there, I wouldn’t be able to say a word. Now I’m helping refugees. I didn’t make a mistake. Thank God, I made the right decision at the right time. If I hadn’t left then, I wouldn’t get out now.”

Q: When your daughter-in-law revealed on Twitter that you’d left Russia, it sparked controversy online.

“I admit I didn’t expect all the noise. Ultimately, I’m not Natan Sharansky. We need to put things in proportion. I think that the noise was because I was, and am, the only religious Russian to take a stance against Russia’s war in Ukraine and leave the country.

“I believe that more people will start opposing the war, but we need to give them time. It didn’t happen in a day for me, either. My decision and actions cause plenty of religious leaders, not only Jewish ones, to think.”

Q: Do you feel guilty for leaving your community behind?

“Obviously, there is a sense of guilt for leaving the community, and my wife feels it even more strongly than I do, but I reached the realization that today, from every perspective, it’s better for Jews not to be in Russia.

“Today, it’s not like it was during the Holocaust, when there was no way to get out. I led the way for many families who decided to make aliyah after I did. The political situation [in Russia] creates questions about the future of the Russian Jewish community because in many senses Russia is reverting to the days of the Soviet Union.

“Can I tell you it was easy? No. My heart is still in Moscow. Even more than missing it, I feel a sense of responsibility. I know I can help the community there much more from Israel, but yes, there is a certain sense that I abandoned them.”

‘I had a feeling this was it’

Shortly before he left Russia, Goldschmidt, as he puts it, woke up to a new reality in the country, one that was “very disturbingly similar” to the USSR he had known more than 30 years earlier when he first landed behind the Iron Curtain.

“I went to bed on Feb. 23, the eve of the war, and the next morning I woke up and realized I was in a completely different country, with different laws and rules. In the Soviet Union, Jews weren’t allowed to live according to their faith, and weren’t allowed to decide where they would live—and suddenly I saw these laws being renewed in modern-day Russia.

“If someone criticized the war, he could be put in prison for 15 years, and things that were more or less dependent on the government closed down.

“From day to day, I saw more and more arrests of people who opposed the war, I saw images of people going out on the streets and being arrested—grandmothers and grandfathers being arrested, without trials. These are very difficult sights, reminiscent of dark times,” he says.

“And I saw Jews trying to leave the country. There was an atmosphere of fear, even hysteria,” he continues. “The western sanctions on Russia also made me feel like we’d gone back to the days of the USSR. Planes stopped flying from Russia to Europe, and the West demanded all its leased aircraft back.

“In a situation like that, who knew how long flights to Israel would go on? The worse the situation got, the closer I was to deciding to leave. I’m not a private individual. Hundreds, even thousands, of people reached out to me from all over the world, and I’m in touch with them, and I realized that was what I had to do.”

When the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Jewish community in Russia found itself facing a difficult challenge. On one hand, Jews were crying out in Ukraine, and on the other—they were residents of Russia, which threatened to imprison anyone who put out “fake news” about the war or dared call it a “war.”

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Because of the sensitivity, many rabbis in Russia chose to express their opinions delicately, apparently to avoid hurting their relationship with the authorities. Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, for example, called for “prayers for peace for all peoples.”

But Rabbi Alexander Barda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, expressed unequivocal support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Ukraine war was being waged against “Nazis.”

Goldschmidt was in what might have been the most challenging position. He was the chief rabbi of Moscow, and it might have been in the community’s interest to keep quiet.

But since 2011, he has worn another, more important hat—president of the Conference of European Rabbis, an organization of some 700 community rabbis and synagogues from across the continent.

as the representative of hundreds of rabbis in Europe, the vast majority of whom took a firm stance opposing the Russian invasion, Goldschmidt felt he was expected to speak out against the war, which he says is an unequivocal stance.

“I found myself in an impossible trap. We knew there would be pressure on the city’s community to support the war, like Rabbi Barda did. And the pressure really did start. The decision we made was to neither condemn nor support it. We simply didn’t say a word.

“But I saw what was happening in Ukraine, the Jewish communities being destroyed and the thousands of refugees, while I was sitting in silence, and it burned inside me. I consulted members of the community, and in the end, we decided to set up an aid fund for the refugees,” he says.

As the days passed and the situation of Ukraine’s Jews worsened, Goldschmidt found it harder and harder to keep quiet.

“I looked at the rabbis in Ukraine, who had built a community over the course of 30 years, and put their lives into it, building synagogues, orphanages—and in one day, they needed to leave with their bags in hand. It’s a tragedy. Some were heroes, taking care to get members of their communities out under shelling. There are plenty of stories of heroism there,” he says.

Q: You did something heroic too. You took a stance against Putin.

“I don’t feel like a hero. I did what was right. I understand why there’s interest about it because I’m the only religious leader who did. But it has to be said—it was a hard decision.”

Goldschmidt and his wife decided to leave Russia on the evening of March 6, a Sunday.

“I told Dara we were at a special moment in history. One day our children and grandchildren would ask me what I did at this time, if I just sat by and stayed quiet. So together, we decided that I had to leave and help the refugees,” he says.

Q: Did you imagine that, in effect, you’d never return to Russia?

“I didn’t know then that I would never go back to Russia because no one knew how long the war would last. But I had a feeling that was it. We went to Budapest, and from there to Warsaw and Vienna. In every city, we helped refugees who had fled Ukraine get on their feet, find housing.”

Q: Do you understand why other religious leaders in Russia aren’t opposing the war like you did?

“‘Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.’ I’m not judging anyone and don’t want to judge others. The situation there is a very difficult one. When you live in a country where you’re not free, like Iran, you don’t say everything you think. You don’t expect the rabbi of Tehran to oppose the regime after all.

“In many regards, Russia today is Iran—the authoritarian rule, the life under sanctions and the international isolation. There are a lot of parallels. I believe that the political and economic situation will get worse. I pray for the future of the Jewish community in Russia. I did what I thought was right.”

‘Like traveling through time’

Goldschmidt was born into a Haredi family in Zurich. His father was a manufacturer, his mother worked as a translator.

“Even though my father was head of the PTA at my school, I was expelled at age nine, so I went to a non-Jewish school,” he laughs. At age 11, he was sent to Israel, where he studied at the Yesodei HaTorah school in Tel Aviv.

Goldschmidt went on to the elite Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and from there to the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago. Then he returned to Israel and studied at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, while also studying at the religious Zionist Merkaz Harav. Then he resumed his studies at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and completed an M.S. at Johns Hopkins University.

“I met my wife, Dara, there. She was a graduate of Yeshiva University. I was looking for a girl who’d agree to make aliyah, but there weren’t too many,” he smiles. A few days after their wedding, the two made aliyah and Goldschmidt was ordained. In 1987 he founded a kollel in Nazareth Illit, now known as Nof HaGalil, and two years later received a phone call that changed his life.

“A friend from Zurich I hadn’t spoken to in over 10 years called me. He told me that they were looking for an assistant to the chief rabbi of the Soviet Union, Avraham Sheivitz, who would live in Moscow for a year.

“I told him there were thousands of good candidates in Bnei Brak and asked why he’d reached out to me. His answer was, ‘If there’s someone crazy enough to found a kollel in Nazareth Illit, maybe he’ll be willing to go to Moscow.’”

The surprising phone call stirred up a latent dream of Goldschmidt’s. “My father worked setting up supply chains for the clothing industry, and because of his job, he traveled to many distant countries, including Iran, Mongolia and the Soviet Union.

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“Just before he left for the Soviet Union, when I was a kid, he contacted the underground Jewish organizations that were working to support the refuseniks, who had not been allowed to make aliyah.

“He gave them lessons and clothing, and when he came home, he told [us] about heroes who weren’t afraid of the KGB and were leading Jewish lives under the Soviet flag. It was exciting, and back then I started to dream of going there myself.”

Goldschmidt took the job, and at the start of 1989 arrived in Moscow on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate and the late Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik from Zurich. Because the Soviet minister who had approved his arrival had already been ousted, the rabbi from Israel had to find a “back door” in, as he puts it.

A year earlier, in a secret meeting, the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and then-Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti agreed to set up the Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization under the Russian Academy of Sciences, the only entity allowed to issue visas for citizens of western countries. The real purpose was to create an underground yeshiva.

“When I got to Moscow, the community was under the control of the KGB,” Goldschmidt says. “A synagogue and a half was operating in the entire city. A million Jews lived in the capital, but maybe a dozen knew the Hebrew alphabet. At the time, there were hundreds of organizations, all underground, that were teaching Hebrew, and they needed to operate under the Soviet radar.

“The Academy of Sciences was located in a villa in a nice park in the northwest part of the city, and we founded a yeshiva there. We had a yeshiva head who was a Hassidic rebbe, and a team that included future Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal and Professor Shaul Stampfer—who is now head of the Department of History of Jewish People at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Lots of students from all over the Soviet Union arrived. One was Zeev Elkin, currently the housing and construction minister.

“In Moscow, I felt like I’d traveled back in time. The cars looked like they were from the 1960s, the shops were completely empty. Clothing and furniture stores had [signs] reading ‘nothing today,’ and they’d sell goods from the back for 10 times the advertised prices. If you wanted to get a taxi, all you had to do was pull out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and the driver would happily take you around for hours.”

Clashes with the regime

At the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet bloc started to collapse. As it crumbled, the Jewish movements stepped up their activities. Goldschmidt established the first rabbinical court in the Soviet Union after nearly 50 years in which there had been no rabbinical court anywhere in Eastern Europe and started to work on Jewish divorces, conversions and clarifications of Jewish status.

“Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Russians were saying they were Jewish, without any signs of it,” he recalls.

In 1993, Goldschmidt was officially appointed chief rabbi of Moscow, and with his staff, he proceeded to found Jewish schools. It quickly turned out that, when it came to Jewish studies, the teachers were frequently no better versed than their pupils.

“At night, we’d teach the teachers, and in the morning they’d teach it in class. Those were crazy times,” he says.

The community flourished, due in part to help from the new oligarchs who emerged after the fall of the USSR.

“Eighty percent of the oligarchs were Jewish, but they didn’t know anything about Judaism,” Goldschmidt recounts. “I went from banker to banker, that’s what they were called then, and explained that we needed to establish a community. At first, they didn’t understand why.”

Slowly, wealthy people joined the effort and the community gained more institutions, schools, yeshivahs, kollels and mikvehs. In 1996, the Russian Jewish Congress was founded as an umbrella group for the country’s various Jewish communities, with backing from one of the biggest oligarchs at the time—Vladimir Gusinsky, who among other things owned the popular NTV channel. But then things started to get complicated.

On the last day of 1999, a fairly unknown functionary named Vladimir Putin was appointed acting president of the Russian Federation after Boris Yeltsin resigned. Shortly thereafter, his appointment was formalized. One of Putin’s first goals was to battle the oligarchs, including the ones who had been helping the Jewish community. Gusinsky was forced into exile, as were many other Jewish businessmen.

“The Chabadniks, with help from the authorities, appointed a new chief rabbi for Russia—Rabbi Berl Lazar,” Goldschmidt explained. “Since then, the Jewish community in the country has been divided between Chabad, which is close to the regime, and the Orthodox community and the Jewish Congress, which have nothing more than polite relations with it.”

For the first time, Goldschmidt found himself on a collision course with the Russian powers.

“In 2000, when the Russians tried to take control of our community after the split, they took away my residence visa. In 2005, after I returned to Moscow from Israel, they arrested me at the airport and gave me a hard time coming in. When Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia, we had some peace, and because the community pushed for it, I took out Russian citizenship,” he says.

“In 2018, they tried to get rid of me again, but this time it was harder for them because it was too dramatic to arrest me over and over,” he continued. “What was their solution? Every time I crossed the border, they stopped me for hours, with questioning and demands. They tried to make my life miserable, but it didn’t work.”

But this year, with the Ukraine war pushing him into an impossible position, Goldschmidt said the authorities managed to make him leave. Or as he puts it, “This time they went too far.”

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Q: While making your life miserable, as you put it, do you think the authorities tapped your conversations or followed you in Moscow?

“I don’t think they listened in on me, I know they did—every word. My working assumption was that they heard every word I said. I heard stories about rabbis in the Soviet Union in the 1990s who were spied on even in the bathroom, and I identified, even though I assume that the tapping is much more electronic and efficient.

“It wasn’t just me they were after. It was obvious that the regime wanted details about what every single citizen was doing, especially important ones, so it was clear that they were listening.”

Q: In all your years there, did you fear for your life?

“I wasn’t afraid for my life, even though, as I said, there were a few attempts to get me to leave Russia after Putin came to power.”

‘I talked with Zeev Elkin’

Since Goldschmidt left Russia, his former deputy has taken over his duties. At a meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis held in Munich in May, Goldschmidt described himself as the “exiled chief rabbi of Russia,” a title he still gives himself.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community in Moscow decided to remove him from his position and announced the decision in an open letter.

Q: Were you angry about the decision? It was announced a month after you had been approved for seven more years in the position.

“Not at all. I’m not angry at the community, because they removed me with my consent. I understood that the moment I stood up against the authorities and the war, I would be putting them in danger if I stayed in the role.”

Q: Have you spoken to your student, Zeev Elkin, about Israel’s stance on the Ukraine war?

“I’ve talked to him about it. If anyone is an expert on this subject, he is. He and I have the same concerns.”

Q: Do you believe Israel should take a clearer position in support of Ukraine, like you did?

“I see things from my own perspective, as a rabbi from Europe, but the prime minister of Israel, who is concerned about the security of Israel’s citizens, sees things from a different angle. I pray that the government will make the best possible decisions. If the Israeli government wants to consult with me, I’ll be happy to help, and it doesn’t matter who the leader is.

“Israel is in a very tough position on this war. On one hand, it’s part of the West, the U.S.’s greatest friend; but on the other, it’s trying to maintain working relations with Russia because of Syria. So, it’s walking a fine line. I understand that, lately, the Russian government hasn’t liked that fine line very much.”

Goldschmidt also touches on the crisis between Russia and Israel that erupted a few weeks ago after Russia sought to close down the Jewish Agency’s activity there.

Last week, Israel Hayom reported that, since the start of the war in Ukraine, over 50,000 Russians have arrived in Israel, some 20,000 of whom have made aliyah. It appears that the Kremlin isn’t too fond of the Jewish Agency helping organize a mass exodus from the country, which looks bad for Moscow.

“I’m certain that it’s a very hard decision for everyone who leaves because you’re talking about a drastic change, even to their quality of life,” Goldschmidt says.

“Moscow is a huge, glorious city in many respects, but they’ve decided to leave because their future is uncertain and starting to look dark. You have to understand that it’s a very real possibility that the Iron Curtain could come down again.

“The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that, soon, no more visas would be issued for western countries. Belarus, which is now more like a Russian province than a sovereign state, passed a law that allows the KGB to arrest anyone who wants to leave.

“The foundational assumption that anyone can live wherever they want has been pulled out from underneath the feet of Russian citizens. There is a danger for Jews, no doubt. The Jewish community is being held hostage in the diplomatic war between Russia and Israel, and that’s not a position the Jewish community should be in. It’s a very dangerous situation.

“Another reason Jews are leaving is the problem of antisemitism. There have been a few warning signs recently. The dispute over shutting down the Jewish Agency, remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said ‘Hitler had Jewish blood too.’

“Some academics have been arrested. A Jewish professor was arrested even though he was terminally ill and he died in prison. He’s not the only one. Seventy years after Stalin’s ‘Doctors Trial,’ there is concern that we’re seeing it happen again.”

What’s more, Goldschmidt says, economic worries are also a part of many people’s desire to leave Russia.

“Many people are reaching out to me, asking whether or not they should leave, because they say they fear for their children’s future. People understand that tomorrow will be worse. I’m doing everything I can to help Jews in Russia leave,” he states.

Goldschmidt is helping publicly, as president of the CER, but he says that he also sees the role of exiled chief rabbi of Moscow as very important.

“Much of what I’m doing now is to represent, as I see it, the Jewish community in the city and the country,” he says.

A few days after speaking to Israel Hayom, he departed for the U.S., and then for a community of exiled Ukrainian Jews. “Anything to save souls,” he says.

Q: Do you believe you’ll ever be able to go back to Moscow?

“A Jew has to be optimistic. Our home is still there, locked. With God’s help, one day we’ll go back to Moscow.”