As the war in Ukraine continues, dislocating and endangering huge numbers of people, Russia's chief rabbi, Rabbi Berel Lazar, has expressed his grave concern for the fate of Ukraine's Jews.
Rabbi Lazar first arrived in Moscow in 1990, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary to strengthen Judaism and religious life in the capital city as well as the rest of Russia. Today, he is one of Russia's foremost rabbis.
"What's happening today is terrible, unbelievable," Rabbi Lazar told Israel Hayom in a recent interview. "It's hard to understand how things reached such a point. We're doing all we can, using all our connections to protect Ukraine's Jews as well as the many holy sites in Ukraine. People in Russia are very worried about what's going on in Ukraine, in large part due to the fact that many families have relatives there. Many family members of Chabad emissaries in Russia live in Ukraine, and I am in constant contact with many such people. We're doing all we can to help them and to give them moral support as well as financial assistance and spiritual aid."
According to Rabbi Lazar, the Russian authorities are well aware of the complexity of the situation with regard to the Jewish populations of Russia and Ukraine, and do not interpret support for Ukraine's Jews as support for the Ukrainian national cause. "We are very clear about that," he said. "As rabbis and community leaders, as well as emissaries of the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe, we always stressed that the political aspect of what's going on has nothing to do with us. We don't understand it properly with all its nuances, and getting into the political side of things would simply constitute a waste of time and energy that would be better spent on helping Jews.
"Jews do best staying out of politics," he added. "There are plenty of other things that we should be doing, such as saving lives. We help every single Jew, no matter who he is or where he is. Everyone understands that. If I had a son in Ukraine, would I refrain from helping him just because there are problems between the two countries? Of course not - I would do everything I could to help him, and that's the situation we're in now. The Russian government knows that we must help our Jewish brothers and we don't make any attempt to hide what we're doing."
Rabbi Lazar is considered close to Russian President Putin, meaning that he has to dodge between the raindrops. "We don't get into the question of who is right and who is wrong," the chief rabbi clarified. "There's a saying in Israel: Don't be right - be smart. It's not our place to judge - that's not what we're here for. All we should be doing is using the means we have at hand to help as many Jews as we can. Sometimes, just a single phone call can save a family, provide someone with necessary medications, or extricate a Jew from a tight spot. That's what we're busy with now, day and night."
According to Rabbi Lazar, Ukraine's Chabad emissaries are doing heroic work, but he added that some of them have simply had to leave due to the danger they were in. "In the Shabbat prayers, we say: Moshe was happy with the gift of his role because he was a faithful servant [of G-d]. A faithful servant is always happy because he knows that the mission he is on is his designated role in life. If a person's mission in life is to save other Jews then that's what he does, happily; likewise, if a person's mission entails fleeing from the place where he was, because his life is in danger, then that is what he must do, with the same level of happiness. There have been cases in the current situation where we have had to tell emissaries in Ukraine to leave, and it was very hard for them - after building a community from scratch and tending it for the past 30 years or more, it's not easy to pack a small bag and leave it all behind."
While there has been no actual fighting in Russia, the effects of the war are being felt there with international sanctions impacting regular people in their daily lives. "Things are very hard here right now," Rabbi Lazar confirmed. "Thank G-d we committed not to close a single institution and not stop any activity. For Pesach we will be holding communal Seders for tens of thousands of Jews, and it's a significant challenge, one that we're already feeling. This year looks like it's going to be the first ever where we won't have enough matzah to meet demand. People just keep arriving to purchase matzah - I've never seen anything like it. But when things get tense, people seek out communal support and want to connect to something eternal. We're trying to get hold of more matzot but the Russian airline company has stopped flying so we're going to have to find alternative ways of importing supplies.
"Things have never been as difficult in Russia as they are now in my memory," Rabbi Lazar added. "There were revolutions, difficult economic conditions, but nothing on the scale we're seeing now. It's hard to comprehend. I keep having to remind myself that this is really happening. Just a few months ago, my daughter got married in Moscow and we had over a thousand guests. No one could have imagined that just a short while later we'd be in the situation we are now."