Rabbi torpedoes plan to erect Moses statue in Siberian ‘Jewish’ enclave

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Citing religious prohibitions, a rabbi in eastern Russia vetoed a local Jew’s plan to erect a statue of Moses in Birobidzhan — an area which Soviet governments designated as a Jewish autonomous region.

Eli Riss, a Chabad envoy who serves as Birobidzhan’s chief rabbi, torpedoed the plan earlier this month, he told JTA Thursday.

Valery Gurevich, a founding member of Birobidzhan’s current Jewish community of 4,000 people, told authorities that Riss supported his plan to erect a statue of Moses in Birobidzhan, Riss said. That led some officials to back the plan, which would cost an estimated $30,000, Riss said.

But Riss denies ever okaying the statue, saying Gurevich’s plan to feature a tablet of the Ten Commandments would violate the halachah — rabbinic law. He cited a passage from Leviticus which reads: “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it.”

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Riss also said that Moses is a sacred prophet in Islam, which also places restrictions on statues in religious contexts.

He added that since the Torah offers no description of Moses, depicting him in a statue “would also be inauthentic.” After he voiced his opposition to the plan, it was shelved, he said.

Birobidzhan was established in 1934 by Joseph Stalin in Russia’s Far East on the border with China, 470 miles east of Japan’s coastline. Meant to compete with the Zionist project in pre-state Israel, it ultimately failed. Currently, a little over 5 percent of the region’s population is Jewish.

Still, Birobidzhan has many symbols from its days under communism, including a Jewish museum which is owned and operated by the Jewish community. It features mannequins dressed as Jews, Riss said, stressing that the puppets were purposefully disfigured “to prevent the impression they they are statues or likenesses.” One statue had hole punched through its head, the other had fingers broken off, he said.

In addition to the large menorah standing outside the train station of Birobidzhan and Yiddish street signs peppered with Stars of David, an old synagogue is still functioning and a Jewish community center was built recently in the area’s downtown.

Sholem Aleichem Street remains the main road, and a statue of the “Fiddler on the Roof” still greets concert goers outside the symphony hall.

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