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.”
The expulsions, Lazar added, were “an instance where, instead of addressing problems, some people look for an enemy.”
Silberstein and Hershcovich were part of a wave of foreign rabbis who flocked to Russia in recent years to nurture a long-neglected Jewish faith. The influx is badly needed: In a country still tentatively recovering from decades of communist-imposed secularism, there simply aren’t enough Russian-born rabbis to go around. Jews depend on visitors from the United States, Israel, Europe and Canada who come to fill out the supply of rabbis, scholars and administrators.
Russia is home to as many as 1 million Jews, one of the largest Diaspora populations, said Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. An accurate count has always bedeviled authorities because of the large number of secular Jews who hesitate to identify their ancestry.
Both deported rabbis say they still have faith they’ll make it back to Russia. Officials in the Jewish federation are pressing the federal government to intervene; so far, the government hasn’t budged.
“If federal authorities do not send the message that it’s not the official policy of modern Russia, the problem can become much worse,” said Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
Asked about the case of the rabbis, an immigration spokesman was defiant. The rabbis are accused of illegally working as religious leaders without specifying their activities on their visas; Silberstein is also accused of not registering his address with local authorities.
“I don’t know why they did this, whether it was just flagrant negligence on their part or even an attempt to provoke the authorities, but they did violate the law,” said Konstantin Poltoranin, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Service. “For some reason we never have these problems with other confessions. . . . I assure you, there is no anti-Semitism in our actions.
“We don’t understand the polemics and hysteria whipped up by some of our citizens in the mass media about this situation,” Poltoranin said.
Some Jewish leaders agreed.
“The rabbis probably honestly made mistakes on their visas,” said David Rozenson, a rabbi who has been working in Russia for eight years. “It was probably a technical error that was caught in bureaucracy. . . . My experience is not that the government has in any way blocked Jewish faith development.”
Hershcovich declined to be interviewed, but his blog is full of colorful accounts of his days in Stavropol: the foosball table he managed to buy for a Jewish school; the Jewish family in the remote mountains whose grandmother hadn’t eaten meat in more than 60 years because there was no Jewish ritual slaughterer to kill the animals; the women’s group his wife started to teach Jewish cooking.
Then came the Friday evening when, just half an hour before the start of the Sabbath, immigration officials appeared at the door and took him away for questioning. He was already at the immigration office when Sabbath, and all its restrictions, came into effect.
To the irritation of the Russian officials, Hershcovich emptied his pockets (to avoid carrying), refused to give his fingerprints (considered writing) and trudged up the hill to court “through the dark, past drunk people (and several obvious anti-Semites) for half an hour.”
The case had been carefully prepared, he writes, and the immigration officials told him they had been sent to his apartment by their boss.
“I write this in the hope that it will be in a future book entitled ‘The trials and tribulations of the Chassidim in Russia under Putin,’ ” Hershcovich wrote.
Silberstein’s case also started suddenly: He was invited to a meeting with immigration officials, then told he was due in court 2 1/2 hours later.
“They really threw it on us,” he said.
“We barely had time to get a lawyer or do anything.”
Jewish leaders are still pressing the government to let the rabbis return, Gorin said.
“If the Jewish community is not allowed to have foreign rabbis, it says to us that the Jewish community has no future,” the Jewish federation spokesman said.
“The problem is even bigger when the authorities think they can say which rabbis can work in the community. It’s something new in the history of Russian Jewry, and we protest.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.