Flourishing Lubavitch Hasidim positions itself as voice of Russian Jewry

Chabad, the outreach arm of Lubavitch Hasidic Judaism, shows significant growth in Russia and has successfully created the image of itself as the leader of Russian Jewry in line with Russian nationalism, writes Galina Zelenina of Moscow State University in the journal Contemporary Jewry (online January). Chabad entered the stage when traditional Russian Jewish communities had weakened in the post-communist period and competition from Jewish groups abroad, such as Reform Judaism, was heating up. It had the advantage of claiming an established Jewish lineage in Russia, since the Hasidim had a history in pre-Revolutionary Russia (though far from an unbroken line of succession of leadership). Chabad emerged victorious as far as numbers and influence, becoming widespread throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. It sees itself as more advanced (the “coolest”) and more multicultural than any other Jewish group, one that speaks for all of Russia—even inflating the number of Russian Jews to over a million where most studies have found only from 300,000 to 600,000. Chabad is now the leading voice of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC), which itself is in close alliance with Russian authorities and the Kremlin.

Zelenina writes that the “leaders of Russian Hasidism have been adopting the same tactics, systematically expressing gratitude and giving blessing to the protective and supportive local Russian authorities, who differ greatly from the atheistic Soviet regime. It is important to note that the present-day Kremlin is not only tolerant of Jews, but also aware of the religious-conservative shift. It assigns priority to ‘traditional values’ and actively supports the revival of religious spirituality.” Zelenina compares Chabad and the FJC to Russian Orthodoxy and its close ties to the state; both seek to draw in nominal members and influential leaders (and create grand projects for the public, such as the new Jewish Museum) to build a cohesive community that equates itself with being Russian, though requiring little or no participation (except for its inner circle of followers). She concludes that “Chabad is pursuing goals both mundane (the movement gains power by positioning itself as the representative of all Russian Jewry) and redemptive (by counting unaffiliated Jews as Jews—even as observant Jews after they fulfill just one commandment, which is expected to hasten the coming of the Messiah).

(Contemporary Jewry, https://link.springer.com/journal/12397)