Chabad appeals to Israeli Attorney-General to freeze the transfer of a Jerusalem church to Russian ownership.
For the first time in Israel, Chabad has commenced legal proceedings against Russia and is demanding to halt the transfer of the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem’s to Russia until it agrees to release the historical “Schneerson Collection” library.
The Association of Chabad in the U.S. has appealed to Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara demanding a freeze in the procedures for the transfer of ownership of the Old City real estate in Jerusalem to the Russian government.
Chabad says the collection is being illegally held in Russia.
In a letter written by attorney Uri Kedar representing Chabad, he explained that the “Schneerson Collection” is a historical collection that includes approximately 12,000 books and original writings, which were gradually collected and preserved by Chabad from the end of the 18th century until today.
The collection also includes manuscripts, Schneerson family photographs, and among other things, a Torah scroll dating back to the 1600s, and an illustrated haggadah published in 1712.
This is a unique collection of its kind, and “is a heritage asset for the entire Jewish people, in a way that goes beyond the boundaries of Chabad Hasidism,” Kedar noted.
The books and writings were placed in storage in Moscow during World War I when Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneerson, the fifth Chabad rabbi, was forced to flee the village of Lyubavichi ahead of advancing German soldiers. Instead of returning the collection to Rabbi Schneerson after the war, the Russians instead transferred everything to the Lenin State Library in Moscow, where it remains to this day.
“For historical reasons, since the end of World War I, the Schneerson Collection has been in the possession of the government in Russia, which was formerly the Soviet regime in the Soviet Union, and now the Russian government,” the letter explains.
Chabad has been demanding for decades from Moscow to return the Schneerson Collection to the possession of the Chabad Hasidic Center, currently located in the U.S. So far, a series of judgments and decisions have been issued in the U.S. against the Russian government, ordering it to return the Schneerson Collection to Chabad, including the imposition of a significant fine for contempt of court, which currently stands at approximately $170 million.
The new appeal to Israel follows the Russian government’s demand that it regain ownership of properties in Jerusalem built by Russia in the 19th century.
“The Schneerson Collection has historical Jewish importance, and therefore it is only natural that the State of Israel will mobilize for this historic task, and will do everything in its power on the legal and practical level, to assist my client’s worldwide efforts to return the Schneerson Collection to its possession at the Chabad Hasidic Center in the U.S.,” Kedar wrote.
“Freeze all activity for the transfer of ownership of properties in Israel to the Russian government, and in particular the Alexander Nevsky Court, until the move that my client is promoting to return the Schneerson Collection as a whole to its possession will be successfully completed,” Kedar demanded.
Rabbi Shlomo Kunin, a member of the special team appointed by the Chabad Rebbe to return the books, said that “the Rebbe assigned us the task of returning the books from Russia. We have no doubt that the task will be completed as he wishes, and the books will be returned to the Rebbe’s library whether the Russians like it or not, and there is no delay or obstacle that will stand in our way to carrying out this holy task.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Israel follow through on a commitment to transfer ownership of the Old City’s Alexander Nevsky Church to Russia. In 2020, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to transfer the church and courtyard to Russia as a gesture of appreciation for releasing Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American citizen detained in Russia for 10 months when 10 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage while she was waiting for a layover flight.
However, transferring the property to Moscow amidst its invasion of Ukraine would possibly run afoul of international sanctions against Russia.
United with Israel staff contributed to this report.