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Moscow's ex-chief rabbi warns of growing pressures fraying Russia's Jewish community

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

It's been nearly six months since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and we're going to spend this next part of the program hearing two very different voices of protest against Vladimir Putin's Russia. First, we turn to a leader in Russia's Jewish community who has fled the country. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt moved to Russia as the Soviet Union was crumbling to build up the Jewish community that had been suppressed under Soviet rule. And as Moscow's chief rabbi for almost 30 years, he became one of Russia's most influential Jewish figures. But then, two weeks after Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Rabbi Goldschmidt and his wife packed two suitcases and quietly fled the country. Now he's speaking out about his decision to leave. Last week, I spoke with Rabbi Goldschmidt about why he left and what the war has meant for Russia's Jewish community.

On February 24, you woke up in Moscow to the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And two weeks later, you left. Can you describe those two weeks?

PINCHAS GOLDSCHMIDT: It was like waking up in a different city, in a different country. So this was not Moscow anymore. It's not - it wasn't Moscow as we knew it. We received reports of - daily of mass arrests and new decrees and new laws which - the closing of all - the remnant of independent media and the most prominent members of civil society, who were not totally connected to government, just leaving the country. And then we saw the West uniting around Zelenskyy and Ukraine and then the start of this avalanche of sanctions against Russia. So all this basically told us that we live in a new situation and totally new Russia.

ESTRIN: You've said that there was pressure on religious leaders to publicly support the invasion. Describe the kind of pressure that you were under.

GOLDSCHMIDT: I think that across the board, the government expected civil society, as well as everyone, openly to support the war.

ESTRIN: And how about you? What kind of messages did you receive personally, as chief rabbi of Moscow?

GOLDSCHMIDT: What I understood - that while in the past, it was possible just to - by refraining from dealing with politics in general, was - it was possible to continue to administer Jewish community, to lead a religious life and with schools and synagogues. I understood that in this new reality, this changed reality, the government is going to demand much more from everyone who is still in an official leadership position in the community.

ESTRIN: So was it something that you - was it something implied, or did you get a direct message from any leadership?

GOLDSCHMIDT: We received direct messages, and we decided initially that we not going to support the war in the leadership, but we're not going to criticize the war either in order not to get the community into trouble. But as time progressed and I realized that keeping quiet in such circumstances is morally wrong when you have thousands - tens of thousands of Jewish refugees and millions of refugees who have to leave their homes and their hometowns - and to keep quiet would be morally not defensible. So my wife and I, we decided that we - while we cannot talk and speak up while we are still inside Russia, we are going to leave Russia, and we're going to actually help the refugees.

ESTRIN: So just to clarify, you received a direct message from the Kremlin expecting you...

GOLDSCHMIDT: The community received messages. The community received direct messages. And...

ESTRIN: From the Russian leadership, expecting you to...

GOLDSCHMIDT: Right.

ESTRIN: ...To support the war.

GOLDSCHMIDT: Right.

ESTRIN: And the initial decision of the Jewish community was not to say anything.

GOLDSCHMIDT: That's right.

ESTRIN: And then you changed your mind.

GOLDSCHMIDT: Right. This was a personal decision, this decision which took some time to come to. And I understood that - and as the war went on and became more and more terrible, I decided that the time has come for me to speak up.

ESTRIN: Rabbi, our conversation is airing on Tisha B'Av, which is the Jewish day of mourning. It's a day of fasting. It's a day that marks many calamities that Jews have faced throughout history. If you were still in Moscow at your synagogue and you were able to speak openly and freely on this day, what would you tell your congregation?

GOLDSCHMIDT: When I went with my wife to visit refugees in Hungary - in Budapest a few months ago, an elderly lady approached us and said that she is from Kyiv. She left Kyiv with just one suitcase a few days ago. And in Kyiv, she's the owner of a big factory manufacturing tiles. And she said, rabbi, I want to ask you a question. I said, yeah, what is your question? She says, why did God do this? I replied - I said, you know, God has not explained it to me in his last phone call why he allowed this war to happen. But I want to tell you one thing, is that the first commandment, which was issued to the first Hebrew - to Abraham, the father of all the Abrahamic religions - was (speaking Hebrew) - just go. Go to the land I promised, to the land I will show you.

To be a Jew means to be able to pack your bags from one day to the next and move on. And no matter in what dire situation we found ourselves, we were able always to move on and to rebuild. And we're not only crying over the past, we're rebuilding for the future. And that's our strength as Jewish people.

ESTRIN: That's Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, who has resigned from his role after nearly three decades and left Russia in protest of its war on Ukraine. Rabbi Goldschmidt, thank you so, so much for agreeing to speak with us.

GOLDSCHMIDT: Daniel, thank you very much for inviting me to speak on NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.