For 29 years, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt was the chief rabbi of Moscow. But one-and-a-half years ago, everything changed. He left Russia with his family in March 2022, a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“After Russia invaded Ukraine, there was an attempt at the beginning of the war to force religious leaders to support the war,” Goldschmidt tells JNS. “I and others believed that we should not support the war. And we concluded that we must not be silent.
“I said, in a dramatic way, that I went to sleep in Moscow and woke up in Tehran,” the rabbi says. “I realized that I see no future for the Jewish community in the current structure of Russia, when just for calling the war a war (and not a ‘special military operation’), you can get 15 years in prison.”
JNS: Are you afraid, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt?
Rabbi Goldschmidt: Blessed is the man who is always reverent. Thank God, I’m in Israel and I am not thinking of going to Russia in the near future. Are me and my family more careful? The answer is yes.
JNS: What made you say those things in public?
Goldschmidt: I am a public figure. I can tell you that 90% of the Jewish community opposes the war. I am a Russian citizen, after all. Therefore, I am also responsible for what is done in my name. And as a religious leader, as a leader of an important community—even if it is small, it is historically very important—people in the community said that we must not support this war. A war without justification.
JNS: Some of your colleagues did not join you in your call.
Goldschmidt: The rabbis in Russia who remained behind, in Russia, should be able to live in the country. I don’t want to judge others.
Last weekend, Goldschmidt discovered that the Russian Ministry of Justice had branded him a “foreign agent” due to his criticism of the invasion of Ukraine. “Being a member of this ‘distinguished list’ is not a crime,” he says. “This is not a criminal case. Just sanctions. But if they open a criminal case against me this will be a different story.”
JNS: How did you find about it?
Goldschmidt: I just saw it on Saturday night. It wasn’t a surprise to me, but a surprise regarding why now? Almost a year and a half after I left Russia, I came out against the war, I resigned from my job—so, why now?
JNS: What do you think is the answer?
Goldschmidt: The Jewish issue made headlines again because of Israel. Israel today made a certain U-turn towards Ukraine. There were visits from ministers. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy’s wife was in Israel. There is talk about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu visiting Kyiv. And that’s why now I am the first religious leader in history to be on this distinguished list.
JNS: So, in a certain way, the Jewish community is a hostage to Israel’s relations with Ukraine?
JNS: Very harsh things were said about you in the Russian Justice Ministry statement.
Goldschmidt: If my sin was to condemn this terrible war, the catastrophe, in which so many were killed, which harmed the Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine—I am not sorry about that.
JNS: Can Jews feel safe in Russia today?
Goldschmidt: Today, yes. The problem is what will happen tomorrow. The direction in which Russia is going is a return to the Soviet Union, to communism. And the biggest limitation of life in the Soviet Union was that a person did not have the right to live where or do whatever he wanted. This is the story of millions of Jews. The Iron Curtain is slowly closing. There are many Jews who cannot leave the country, some because they are of conscription age, some who work in government, and I am afraid that the Iron Curtain will come down completely again.
JNS: Can a Jew in Russia walk with a kipah on his head without fear?
Goldschmidt: When there was a strong government, Russia was safer than some [Western] European capitals. But let’s look at those who were arrested by the authorities in recent weeks: Some of them are Jews, like Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. In Belarus, there are about 1,500 political prisoners—quite a few are Jews.”
In recent weeks, some senior Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have made statements that were criticized as antisemitic.
“I think to this day that President Putin himself is not antisemitic, but this new structure of the Russian state after the outbreak of the war, when the state is closed, it causes it to hate everything that it sees as foreign,” Goldschmidt tells this reporter.
JNS: Do you think that the Russian government considers the Jews guilty of failures on the battlefield?
Goldschmidt: I hope not.
The rabbi says there were attempts by the Russian government to convince him to come back.
“They tried to talk to my heart that I should return. But I think I can’t go back,” he says. “And at the beginning they tried to pressure us to express support for the war, because they said, ‘The war against Ukraine is a war against the Nazis. You Jews should say you support it—it is a continuation of World War II.’”
JNS: Do you miss Russia?
Rabbi Goldschmidt: We left a lot of friends, the community and memories. I hope, and would like, to return for a visit.
Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.