Jewish Continuity Doesn't Come Cheap- Jewish Continuity Funders Weekly
I’ve decided to post my interview with Aleksandr Kaganovitch in its entirety, exactly as it appears in Jewish Continuity Funders Weekly. I don’t care if JCF Weekly gets pissed- they still haven’t paid me!
Interview with Aleksandr V. Kaganovitch
You may have heard of Aleksandr V. Kaganovitch, Russian oil magnate, patron of the Moscow Jewish community, and all around model oligarch for the 21st century. Mr. Kaganovitch recently donated 20 million Euro to the opening of a Jewish community center in Moscow. The Aleksandr V. and Anastasia I. Kaganovitch Center for Jewish Learning, Community and Identity Fortification opened its doors last week. I spoke to Mr. Kaganovitch last week by phone from his villa outside Gstaad. We talked about Jewish life in Moscow and the importance of putting Jewish values into action.
RK: Mr. Kaganovitch, congratulations and mazl tov on the opening of the Kaganovitch center.
AK: Thank you very much.
RK: The Kaganovitch Center, in addition to housing a yoga studio, Olympic size swimming pool, weight room and krav maga center, also houses a new Yeshiva. The Yeshiva is staffed by twenty dynamic young Lubavitch rabbis from Brooklyn. Its purpose is to revitalize the jewish community of Moscow by making available the richness of Torah Judaism to a community that has lost all connection to Torah Judaism.
What a wonderful, exciting time for the community. I understand you have sent your son, Nicholas, to the Center’s Yeshiva, is that correct?
AK: Yes, that is correct. I sent him there last week to cut the ribbon. It was a very moving ceremony. The ribbon was twenty meters wide and made from Chinese silk, hand woven over many months by a small kibbutz in Israel. It cost 35,000 rubles.
RK: Wow. That’s an expensive ribbon.
AK: Jewish continuity doesn’t come cheap.
RK: The building of the Kaganovitch Center for Jewish Learning, Community and Identity Fortification was not without its detractors. For example, some have called attention to the fact that the construction of the center used timber from virgin, protected forests that had been logged illegally by groups which may have ties to al-Quaeda. Also, the construction crews you employed were allegedly composed of imported labor, who were systematically underpaid and forced to work through Rosh Hashana. How do you answer those charges?
AK: Of course they had to work through Rosh Hashana, because we were scheduled to host Vladimir Putin at our Yom Kippur services. This is the first time since glasnost that a Russian leader has broken the fast in public. Next year we have the Pope tentatively scheduled to attend.
RK: I’d like to talk a little about the youth programming at the Center. For example, you’ve created a drop-in center/discotheque called Klub Zhidke. Tell me a little about it.
AK: My wife Anastasia came up with the idea of Klub Zhidke, after a trip to the United States. She envisioned a place where young Jews would want to come on Friday night. Klub Zhidke would be an enjoyable and non-judgmental experience where Jews could come together and be Jews without the pressure of being Jewish.
RK: So the goal was simply to get Jews to come to a disco on Friday nights?
AK: Yes. And it’s been successful beyond our wildest dreams.
RK: How do you answer your detractors who claim that there needs to be more to any Jewish continuity program than just being with other Jews?
AK: Numerous studies of the young generation tell us that younger Jews are a new breed. They don’t want to be told what it means to be Jewish- they don’t want to be told that they must know Hebrew or they must be circumcised or they must marry someone Jewish or they must have a Jewish name. The younger generation rejects these rigid parameters of Jewishness, in fact, they’re not even interested in knowing what they are.
RK: But won’t this cause a problem if large segments of the Jewish community can’t even agree on basic principles of Jewishness? Won’t this further fragment an already divided population?
AK: My dear, everyone knows that the Talmudic tradition is an expansive one where multiple, contradictory understandings of Jewish law coexist. To have your own opinion is the most Jewish act of all. These young people aren’t going to take the opinion of a quote unquote rabbi as the last word on Jewishness. Who’s to say whether bacon is kosher or treyf? Many of our young people reject these rules as mere received wisdom. As for those who want to know about traditional Jewish life, of course, they can receive full funding to attend the Yeshiva located within the Center.
RK: Now, there are some who question the wisdom of staffing a Yeshiva with teachers of whom 85% are mashikhist Lubavitchers [those who believe that the late Rabbi Schneerson was the Messiah]. In fact, a number of conversions recently performed by your Yeshiva have been rejected by other Charedi, non Chabad Yeshivas.
AK: It’s unfortunate that many in the old guard of Jewish life don’t understand what the future of Judaism is going to look like. Every study of young Jews shows that they insist upon creating themselves, picking and choosing elements from different cultures that they feel express who they are. They are creating what the sociologists call ‘hybrid identities’. This means that they will not have choose to be either Russian or Jewish, but can be Russian Jews. And it follows that there is no reason you cant believe the Rebbe is the living Moshiakh and still be Jewish. In fact, such beliefs are the quintessence of the modern hybridity of Jewishness which we are empowering.
RK: Your cutting edge agenda for the Center extends to all its programming, much of which is jointly designed and funded with American donors. There was a recent demonstration outside the Center when you and your American partners decided to cancel the Yiddish sunday school and cut off its funding [approximately .03% of the Center’s budget.] AK: Unfortunately, our funds are finite. We must be realistic about our priorities, and we decided that our modern Hebrew program needed those funds for its field trip to Goa.
RK: The protests around the Sunday school drew a fair bit of attention for their unusual tactics. You were quoted in Moscow’s Jewish newspaper as saying that you could not conscience money being thrown away on what you called an “irrelevant” and “dead” language. This prompted a protest by a large group of grandchildren and their Yiddish speaking grandparents who felt that it was important for the new generation to learn the language that had been spoken by 10 million Russians only a few decades ago. This group of grandparents called themselves the Bubbe Battalion and organized a Yiddish folk song sing in, demanding that you reinstate the funds for the Sunday School. Considering the numbers that came out, over 200 80-90 year old Jewish grandparents fighting for their culture, would you re-evaluate your judgment of Yiddish as “dead”?
AK: Absolutely. I think ‘almost dead’ is a much more accurate description.
RK: You certainly have a bold and forward looking plan for Russian Jewry. But what about Russian Jews who leave the FSU? President Moshe Katsav’s office recently released a statement about Russian girls being trafficked into Israel and used for sex slaves. What–
AK: I think that’s a matter for President Katsav’s lawyers to comment on.
RK: A recent study by the League of Global Jews found that the majority of Russian Jews who emigrate are now choosing to go to the United States and Germany over Israel, by a margin of 5 to 1. In fact, the majority of Russians who do emigrate to Israel are believed to be ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars and Mongolians, all of whom falsely pass themselves off as Jews in order to take advantage of the Law of Return.
AK: Ironic, isn’t it?