Forward Thinking

Does Takeover of Crimea Mean Messiah Is Near?

By Sigal Samuel

Getty Images

Most of the Jewish and general world is fuming over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. But some ultra-Orthodox Jews are positively delighted by it.

This week, Grand Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, the vice president of Israel’s Rabbinical Court and a descendant of the revered rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon (aka “Genius of Vilnius”), announced to his disciples that Putin’s actions are a sure sign that the Messiah is on his way.

Apparently, Shternbuch heard this secret prediction from Rabbi Yitzchak Chever, who heard it from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn, who heard it from the Vilna Gaon himself, who said shortly before his death:

When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard. And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.

Shternbuch’s pronouncement, which was reported this weekend in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel, has some Haredi Jews working themselves into a messianic frenzy. A few, like this rabbi, are even going so far as to say that “we owe a note of thanks” to Putin for hastening the coming of the Messiah.

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Sochi's Olympic Games Are a Missed Opportunity

By Gal Beckerman

An activist wearing a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin joins protesters on the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. / Getty Images

As the winter Olympics open today, there has been a crescendo of condemnation in the West of Russia’s many human rights violations. Sadly, in spite of all the attention Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians and the environment of violent homophobia have received, the situation has not gotten any better. We published our editorial on Sochi back in November with the hope that the International Olympic Committee and sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s or the large network covering the event, NBC, might try and apply some pressure on Russia. But sadly that has not happened, and with the exception of a few token words from Putin, gays and lesbians feel even more embattled now just as the parade of athletes begins.

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News Quiz: Putin Plays and Camp Clears Out

By Lenore Skenazy

This week we race from Russia to Japan to D.C., New York and Israel. If this were an actual trip, it would cost you thousands of dollars.

But, it’s not. It’s a quiz. Take it after the jump.

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Secrets of the Schneerson Library

By Paul Berger

Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s predecessor, Yosef Yitchok Schneersohn, may have had too modern a taste in literature. That may be one reason why Chabad is so anxious to have the famed Schneerson Library returned to the U.S.

Why does Chabad want the Schneerson Library back so badly?

While researching this week’s story recounting the latest twists in Chabad’s decades-long struggle for the library, several people offered various explanations. Somehow, they seemed too speculative to include in the story — but interesting enough to raise here.

Rabbi Berel Levin, the chief librarian of the Chabad Library in Brooklyn, told me that Chabad has 250,000 books at its HQ in Crown Heights. But the thousands of books held in Moscow are, according to Levin, the “core of our library, gathered by the Rebbes of the generations.”

Levin said the books in Moscow are written mainly in Hebrew, and deal mostly in Torah, Gemara and Kabbalah. But because the Soviets and Russians never catalogued the library no one really knows for sure. Even the total number of books in the library is disputed. Russia claims there are about 4,000 volumes, Chabad says the number is closer to 10,000 volumes.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Moscow rabbi who has a contentious history with Chabad, said that for the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the battle for the library was about much more than ownership and theology. It was about politics and, perhaps, about something more.

“Maimonides spoke of the Messiah as king,” Goldschmidt said. And Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted to show the world that he had fought like a king and “won against Communism.”

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Hidden Victims of Russia's Adoption Ban

By Susan Armitage

I used to see them fairly often in airports, nicer hotels or restaurants. Living in Eastern Europe, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and later working for a non-profit in Russia, I’d become adept at spotting other Americans in public.

I sized them up, taking into account the color and style of their clothing, their footwear, and the snatches of conversation I overheard: Businessman? NGO worker? Diplomat? Missionary?

There was one group of Americans whose reason for being in Russia was much easier to guess. With strollers in tow, they were on the final leg of an international adoption journey, preparing to bring a Russian child home.

When I read about Russia’s recent ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens, I couldn’t help but think of these families, as well as the children I’ve met in Russian orphanages, and the little Tatianas, Sergeys and Svetlanas I got to know, on paper at least, during my brief stint processing post-adoption reports at a U.S. child assistance foundation.

The reports showed pictures of Russian kids, sometimes with new names like Jessica or Jacob, celebrating the Fourth of July, playing soccer and blowing out birthday candles with their American siblings. But as these adoptive families build new traditions together, most do want their Russian children to know where they came from.

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The Losers in Russia's Adoption Ban

By Susan Armitage

I used to see them fairly often in airports, nicer hotels or restaurants. Living in Eastern Europe, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and later working for a non-profit in Russia, I’d become adept at spotting other Americans in public.

I sized them up, taking into account the color and style of their clothing, their footwear, and the snatches of conversation I overheard: Businessman? NGO worker? Diplomat? Missionary?

There was one group of Americans whose reason for being in Russia was much easier to guess. With strollers in tow, they were on the final leg of an international adoption journey, preparing to bring a Russian child home.

When I read about Russia’s recent ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens, I couldn’t help but think of these families, as well as the children I’ve met in Russian orphanages, and the little Tatianas, Sergeys and Svetlanas I got to know, on paper at least, during my brief stint processing post-adoption reports at a U.S. child assistance foundation.

The reports showed pictures of Russian kids, sometimes with new names like Jessica or Jacob, celebrating the Fourth of July, playing soccer and blowing out birthday candles with their American siblings. But as these adoptive families build new traditions together, most do want their Russian children to know where they came from.

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The Cossacks Are on the Rise Again. For Real.

By J.J. Goldberg

Time magazine has one of the scariest news reports I’ve read in a while. It seems the Cossacks are on the rise again. No, not figuratively — literally. The fanatically religious pan-Slavic paramilitary tribe that terrorized your great-grandmother’s great-grandmother in the old country is recruiting, operating youth training camps, running for office (successfully) in Russia and Ukraine and agitating for a reunification of Belarus and Ukraine with Mother Russia, all with the active encouragement of Russia’s prime minister, ex-president and permanent strongman, Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian government is fighting them, because they threaten Ukrainian independence, but Russia and Belarus are both encouraging them, Time’s Simon Shuster (that’s his name, not his publisher) reports. He visited a training camp for teenage boys in Crimea and interviewed their leader, General Viktor Vodolatsky, a former plumber and a member of parliament for the United Russia party, which is chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Their latest graduates — some of them Cossacks by birth, others newly initiated — took in their commander’s speech on Aug. 10 with all the requisite decorum. “The unification of the Slavic state is the guarantee of our future,” Vodolatsky told them. “And the children who stand beneath these Cossack banners are ideologically pure, physically strong and secure in their faith. Now you must serve as an example to the youth in whatever town you come from.”

There was a major violent clash in July between an organized band of Cossacks and a large force of police in a Ukrainian city where Cossacks erected a metal cross in front of city hall without a permit.

“These actions send an effective message, and we will continue them,” said Vitaly Khramov, one of Ukraine’s most prominent Cossack elders. “We want them to understand that the state of Ukraine is a stillborn project, a tumor that Ukrainians must extract from themselves … We are the immunity against this disease.” As the head of Sobol, the radical Cossack battalion whose flags adorned the training camp last week, Khramov is one of the movement’s key ideologues in Ukraine, and his preaching has reached many of the boys who attend the Cossack camps. (Among the ideas he spouted during his interview with TIME were the notions that the U.S. is a satanic nation secretly run by the Rockefeller family, that Jews practice ritual sacrifice and necrophilia, and that Vladimir Putin, Khramov’s political hero, is a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.)

Here is Time’s photo gallery from inside the training camp.

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