Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt, you have lived and worked in Moscow since 1989. So the beginning of her work there coincided with the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev, first as General Secretary of the CPSU and later as President of the Soviet Union. What are your memories of that time?
I got there with my wife and two small children, it was like another world. People wore old-fashioned clothes, there was hardly anything to buy, you could pay for a cab ride with a couple of Marlboro cigarettes.
Do you personally remember Mikhail Gorbachev?
I first came to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. A center for Jewish culture had been set up there.
I met Gorbachev twice. What happened under his aegis, the collapse of the Soviet Union, was neither intended nor planned by him.
Gorbachev wanted to reform communism through glasnost and perestroika. But then the whole system collapsed. He was a tragic figure. But for Jews, a new wind of freedom blew through the system with him.
What was the situation of the Jews in the Soviet Union at that time?
Goldschmidt: I was there with my predecessor in the office of the European Rabbinical Conference, the British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, as part of a rabbinical delegation, and for the first time in our meetings two central questions of religious freedom were discussed.
First, how can Jews live their faith, build synagogues, have community life, learn and teach Hebrew? None of that was possible in the Soviet Union.
Secondly, what options do Jews have to emigrate if they want to? These are two fundamental rights that Gorbachev ultimately allowed: the right to self-determination and the right to emigrate.
Now, 33 years later, you have left Moscow and Russia, why?
I went to bed on February 23 in the evening in one country and woke up in another country on February 24, with the start of the war against Ukraine. In a country with different laws, different regulations, with mass repression, with total censorship. We knew that now the Jewish communities would also be pressured to support this terrible war.
But they didn’t.
After a few days I said we have to do something to support the Ukrainian refugees. My wife and I then worked together with the European Rabbinical Conference to coordinate the help for the refugees and to support them financially.
Since then I have also taken an official position against the war. As a result, it was impossible for my family and me to come back to Russia. We didn’t want to be arrested.
What does the war mean for the development of Russia?
A total disaster, both for Russia and for the Jewish communities. A large proportion of the Jews have already left the country, others are sitting on their packed suitcases. We are back in a new Soviet Union.
You yourself are not silent about the war in Ukraine. Is this attitude representative of Russian Jews?
I receive many messages from Jews in Russia telling me that it is right to take a public stand. I understand that it is difficult for Jews who still live there. Above all, it is dangerous. I estimate that around ninety percent of the Jews in Russia support me.
Isn’t that a vicious circle? As more Jews leave Russia, the more isolated and vulnerable those who remain are.
Churches in Russia are getting smaller and poorer. We have to do everything we can to at least preserve the structures of the communities so that we don’t have to start from scratch again later.
Does the pressure on the Jews living in Russia come primarily from the government or also from the population?
There is a kind of grassroots anti-Semitism in Russia. It exists but has long been suppressed. Now many Jews are afraid that it will spring up again. It wouldn’t be the first time in Russian history.
125 years ago (1897) Theodor Herzl invited Jews from all over the world to the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Because of anti-Semitic riots and pogroms in Russia, many Jews emigrated at the time. Do recent events reiterate the importance of founding Israel to provide a home for persecuted Jews?
The necessity of Israel’s existence for all Jews – whether living in Israel or outside it – is absolute. Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said: Jews can live outside of Israel, but they cannot live without Israel.
If the situation were the same today as it was 125 years ago: which country would be willing to take in the Jewish refugees and emigrants?
They are largely responsible for the historical renaissance of Russian Jewry and have set up schools, kindergartens and soup kitchens. Do you see your life’s work as destroyed?
A rabbi’s life’s work has more to do with people than with buildings. The tens of thousands I have had contact with in Moscow and Russia over the past 33 years, whether in schools, communities or kitchens for the poor, carry Judaism on, preserve the religion through the ages – whether they live in Moscow or in Israel, Germany or in the USA.
Contacts with these people are still maintained. It’s not the bricks in the walls of buildings that create a church, it’s the people.
You spent most of your life in Moscow. Are you homesick for the city and your community?
Moscow is a beautiful city with many wonderful, intelligent and warm people. This applies to Jews as well as to non-Jews. I hope that with God’s help we can return one day.
What is the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian Jews?
In the last six months, around 15,000 Jews from Ukraine and 25,000 Jews from Russia have emigrated to Israel. We help each other where we can. The policies of the governments in Kyiv and Moscow do not affect our solidarity. You are committed to freedom of religion not only in Russia, but also in Europe.
To what extent is this freedom endangered?
In Europe, this freedom is coming under increasing pressure, just think of the discussions about bans on slaughter or circumcision. Whether in Iceland, Belgium or Finland. In Germany, fortunately, the circumcision ban debate ended with the support of former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What explains the attacks on the free exercise of religion?
Challenging religious freedoms is collateral damage to rampant populism. The war in Ukraine should open people’s eyes to the importance of such freedoms in a united Europe.
There must be no going back to 1914, 1939. If Europe is to survive as a civilization, it must consider preserving freedom of religion as essential.