“I will speak to the Russian government, and ask that they ask the Iranian authorities to mend the tomb of Esther and Mordechai.”

MOSCOW, RUSSIA, May 26, 2020 /Neptune100/ — In a wide-ranging Zoom talk yesterday (May 24) by Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, led by Limmud FSU president, Aaron G. Frenkel, as part of the e-learning sessions mounted by Limmud FSU International, Rabbi Lazar declared, in response to a question on the issue, “I will speak to the Russian government, and ask that they ask the Iranian authorities to mend the tomb of Esther and Mordechai.” This historical monument, in Hamedan, was damaged in an arson attack earlier this month. “It was a landmark for all Iran,” said Lazar.

Limmud FSU mounts peer-led, volunteer-based gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world. Since the corona lockdown made physical conferences impossible, Limmud FSU has been providing digital e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics, arranged by volunteer organizing committees of the festivals around the world, from Moscow to the US West Coast, and from Europe to Israel, complemented by additional sessions arranged by the organization itself. These sessions are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together, virtually, and the whole project was initiated by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler and produced by Limmud FSU Public Affairs director Natasha Chechik.

Touching on the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Lazar stressed that the question we need to examine is not why it happened – that, he said, we may never know or understand, but what we can learn from it. “We are in quarantine; use it,” he urged the listeners from across the world who joined in at wildly different times of the day for them; “It will never come back, it’s a historical moment. If we don’t use it in some way, we will not be able to teach our children anything from it. We need to find out what is important for us; we need to ask ourselves how we can help others.” He noted that the Chabad organization in Russia that he heads is providing people with Shabbat packages; “People understand that others are thinking of them. On the wider plane this finds expression through people – and countries – actually becoming friendlier. Arguments and disagreements from before the pandemic now seem to be really not that important. People are becoming softer.”

The thought was echoed by Aaron Frenkel, who suggested that people are taking the enforced time out from every day life to reflect, think of their future, and look for ways in which they can inject more meaning and less material acquisitiveness into their lives.

On the question of antisemitism in Russia today, Lazar struck a very practical tone. “There has always been antisemitism; there is antisemitism today – and there always will be. But we need to engage with the antisemites and talk to them,” he said, noting that he is willing to appear on their media channels, an approach that some find surprising. “We must not stay silent and create the impression that it is acceptable; by reacting – and we must always react – we send a message to governments at all levels that combatting antisemitism is their responsibility and they must do something about it.”

But addressing antisemitism, he cautioned, “also depends on us, on how we behave, on what we do.” To that end, Chabad in Russia does not only help needy, vulnerable Jews. “We provide support to non-Jews also.”

In a call for Jewish unity, Lazar reminded his listeners that at the end of this week the Jewish world will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. “That is the core of Limmud,” he said; “Shavuot is the essence of learning. We are the People of the Book, our children learn that they must live by the morals of that Book – and it was on Shavuot that we received that Book, the Torah [Five Books of Moses], the Bible.”

Lazar discussed the location where, according to Jewish religious belief, God gave the Torah to the Jewish People. “Mount Sinai is a small mountain in the middle of the desert. The choice is not by chance: at the bottom of a small mountain, the Torah was given to the most humble, to a People who accept that they can learn – precisely by listening to each other, by caring for each other. And if we can do that now, as difficult as it may be for a people of egos and opinions, we can emerge from the coronavirus pandemic stronger and more united.”