Rabbis' Expulsion Worries Russia's Jews

March 18, 2009

Author: Megan K. Stack

Source: The Los Angeles Times


Two and a half years ago, a young Orthodox rabbi from New York set down in the port city of Vladivostok, family in tow. Yisroel Silberstein came with a mission, and he expected to stay for good.

Out on Russia's rough-and-tumble eastern frontier, Silberstein set out to revive a Jewish life that, he says, had almost disappeared. He reached out to several thousand local Jews, organizing services, holiday parties and a summer camp where children learned about Judaism and swam in the Sea of Japan.

"We thought we were making a great difference in people's lives," he said in a telephone interview.

"People went from not even knowing they were Jewish to becoming very interested in Jewish life and Jewish activities."

But last month, Silberstein, his wife and two children were abruptly deported from the country, and banned from returning for five years. Zvi Hershcovich, a Canadian rabbi who had been leading a small Jewish community in the southern city of Stavropol, also was expelled.

Both men were accused by immigration authorities of visa violations.

The expulsions have sent a nervous chill through Russia's Jewish minority. One of Russia's chief rabbis, a follower of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement who is regarded as close to the Kremlin, took the rare step of publicly criticizing the government during a recent meeting between religious leaders and officials.

"Jews have begun to fear for the future of their community in Russia for the first time in many years," said Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi. "In the negative environment of the [financial] crisis, when material problems become exacerbated, some start looking for someone to blame and declare those who are unlike themselves to be guilty."