MOSCOW — A Jewish leader may well have saved his life by doing the "dead man's float" in a local mikvah.
In a bizarre incident possibly linked to rivalries within the local Jewish community, Avrohom Berkowitz had put on his winter coat and was about to leave Moscow's Choral Synagogue last Saturday when he was approached by three large men.
The trio, who he thought were wearing security badges, said something to Berkowitz in Russian, but he did not understand them.
An American who serves as executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union, Berkowitz, 26, got his job in Moscow earlier this year after several years as a Lubavitch emissary in Brazil, and does not speak Russian.
What followed, however, did not need any verbal explanation.
Allegedly, two of the men dragged Berkowitz downstairs while the third watched the stairs.
According to Berkowitz, the pair threw him into the mikvah and held his head under the water. Assuming he was dead, they left after Berkowitz went limp in the water — but he was pretending.
Actual synagogue guards were only a few feet away, but they later said they had noticed nothing unusual — although Berkowitz said he had screamed for help as he fought with his attackers.
Joel Golovensky, head of the Moscow office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was among the first to meet Berkowitz when he climbed upstairs, shocked and wet.
Golovensky said he, too, was deeply alarmed, because "only an hour before that we sat together in the synagogue discussing setting up a committee to settle inter-Jewish controversies."
He was referring to an ongoing rivalry between the Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities and the Russian Jewish Congress for control of the Jewish community.
Golovensky brought Berkowitz to the American Medical Center and then home. Except for some respiration problems and a mild case of shock, Berkowitz is now in satisfactory condition.
Sources in the Choral Synagogue say the attackers could be congregation members angered by what they allege are attempts by Lubavitch officials to take over the synagogue.
While the Lubavitch movement has always had a room of its own in the Choral Synagogue, its main stronghold in Moscow is the Marina Roscha synagogue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently paid two visits to the Marina Roscha Synagogue in what many saw as a gesture of support for the Lubavitch movement — and which might have angered some members of the Choral Synagogue's congregation.
Sources at the Choral Synagogue have recently reported clashes between some congregation members and members of the Lubavitch movement, whom they viewed as intruders.
Berel Lazar, the chief Lubavitch rabbi of Russia, did not deny that there had been some incidents of the sort, but said he couldn't imagine they would lead to an attack on Berkowitz.
"We are in deep shock," he said.
Sources in the American Embassy and other observers in Moscow are not excluding the possibility that the attack on Berkowitz was the result of a provocation manipulated by the Kremlin.
Kremlin officials, say these observers, want to use the communal conflict as part of a larger political strategy aimed at undercutting the power of Vladimir Goussinsky, Boris Berezovsky and other leading Jewish businessmen.
Moscow police are investigating the incident.