Today, A Moscow With More Synagogues Than Ever
28 Chabad centers redefine Jewish communal life in Russia’s capital.
By Dovid Margolin
ZHUKOVKA, Russia – The Jewish community center in this uber-wealthy village some 40 minutes west of Moscow doesn’t even have an address. To get here, visitors are instructed to head out on the Rublevo-Uspenskoye highway, past the European luxury stores and Ferrari dealerships, and make a right turn just before the 9-kilometer marker. There, amid acres of carefully manicured Russian forest, winding brick paths lead up to the $22 million Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhukovka Jewish Community Center, which officially opened its glass doors in December.
Together with neighboring Barvikha, Zhukovka has enjoyed status as dacha of choice for Russia’s elite since the 1920s, when Communist Party officials chose the area for their summer homes and getaways. Nikolai Yezhov – the sadistic NKVD boss who presided over the arrests and deaths of millions before himself being executed in 1940 – had a house here, as did Vyacheslav Molotov (of Non-Aggression Pact and Cocktail fame), who lived here well into the 1980s. Today, many of the homes in the area are surrounded by 20-foot-high fences, and aside from the run-of-the-mill millionaires and even billionaires, rumored neighbors include Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.
It goes without saying that the magnificent Zhukovka JCC couldn’t have existed during the Soviet era. Back then, whatever synagogues that hadn’t been confiscated and closed by authorities were mostly dark, cold and unattractive – the very opposite of the tastefully appointed and light-filled Zhukovka JCC.
Still, this place – with its expansive grounds, Swedish wood and Italian chef-helmed kosher restaurant – easily stands out as one of the most impressive Jewish centers in the world. It’s a symbol, says Rabbi Alexander Barada, the initiator of the Zhukovka JCC’s construction and its rabbi, of how far Moscow’s Jewish community has come – not just in terms of building a Jewish community where once only remnants stood, but in overcoming notions of what Jewish life in modern Russia could look like.
“Our building this is a sign of how our own standards have changed; they continue to grow,” explains Barada, also president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJC), the central umbrella group for Russian Jewry that counts branches in 156 cities across Russia, 45 with permanent rabbis.
“When we first built the Marina Roscha Jewish Community Center in 2001, people had never seen anything like it, and it changed the mentality here,” he says, referring to Moscow’s seven-story Jewish center, the largest in the country. “Then we built new school buildings, and they were even nicer. That was followed by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is absolutely world-class. And we’ve seen that people like to come to a beautiful place. There are people who come to the Zhukovka JCC now who never would have attended anything Jewish before.”
Barada is quick to point out that the Zhukovka JCC is not simply a synagogue for Jewish oligarchs. This region of western Moscow is home to thousands of Jews of all socioeconomic levels, and the center serves them as well.
“This building is a like a vessel,” says Barada. “A good vessel can hold a lot of good.”
Something That Is Their Own’
On this day in mid-February, the Zhukovka JCC is hosting an intensive daylong gathering of the directors – rabbis and their wives – of 28 separate Chabad centers operating throughout Moscow.
Aside from its main center in Marina Roscha, Chabad in Russia has long run schools for Jewish children of all ages, as well as orphanages. With more people living under the official poverty line – the equivalent of $139 a month – than at any time since 2006, its soup kitchens and medical-aid facilities for the elderly and needy are more necessary than ever.
Yet in recent years, Russia’s capital has also seen an explosion of Jewish centers aimed at serving particular neighborhoods and demographics. One Chabad House is geared towards English-speaking expatriates; two others serve Jewish university students on campus. Another opened last year in Khimki, the middle-class Moscow suburban home to Sheremetyvo Airport. While neighborhood-based Jewish community centers have for years been commonplace in Western metropolises like New York, Buenos Aires or Paris, the model’s growth in Moscow marks a significant change for post-Soviet Jews, who over the course of decades became accustomed to having one central synagogue or Jewish community center.
“People here didn’t have something so close to their home, that’s true,” says Rabbi Motti Weisberg, who directs the Marina Roscha Jewish Community Center and has been actively involved in facilitating Chabad’s recent growth. “But today, a lot of people want something that is their own. If there’s only one big center drawing everyone, a lot of people don’t feel an obligation to come. But when you help establish something that’s your own, you know that if you don’t come, there won’t be a minyan or the class will be smaller. There’s a feeling of responsibility.”
“A few of us came to the idea at the same time – that we wanted to help build a community where we lived,” says Moscow businessman David Libman, 53, who was among the early supporters of Chabad of Chistye Prudy, a modest center in central Moscow led by Rabbi Shmuel and Chanie Kuperman. “We gathered people, we found a place – rent in the center of Moscow isn’t cheap at all – we had it renovated, and all of us contributed to these expenses, some more and some less. We never had one oligarch backing the whole thing, so people are more invested in our center because we have to be self-sufficient.”
During Perestroika in the 1980s and immediately after the fall of communism in December of 1991, synagogues that had operated throughout Soviet rule became central points for the distribution of much-needed humanitarian aid. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, rabbis arrived (most often, Chabad ones) to lead and revive the synagogues, establishing an array of Jewish programming. Synagogues that had never closed were joined by a wave of returns of Jewish communal property by authorities in other cities. These restored synagogues became central addresses for all things Jewish.
No Signs of Slowing Down
Before the Russian Revolution, while historically Jewish cities such as Minsk and Vitebsk were home to dozens of synagogues and shtiebels, Moscow was replete with restrictions on Jewish life. During Soviet times, life became even more difficult, with authorities confiscating synagogues and communal property even as more and more Jews flooded Moscow in the hopes of getting an education or finding work. Following the 1971 forced closure of the 100-seat synagogue in the Cherkizovo neighborhood, only two synagogues remained in a city of approximately 500,000 Jews.
That means that Chabad’s current effort to open localized Jewish centers – a campaign that has intensified in the last three years – has created circumstances in which more Muscovites can connect to Jewish communal life near home than at any point in the city’s history.
Barada and his wife, Chava, opened a Chabad center in Zhukovka eight years ago, working at first out of a modest space. As time went on, the number of people attending grew, and the rabbi decided it was time to build their own center.
Despite what has been accomplished, there are no plans to slow down.
“We see Jews in Moscow everywhere, in the most varied of places,” says Barada, “and our mission here is simple: to reach every single Jew, in every single neighborhood in Moscow. By next year, we hope to have 35 centers in the city.”
A Teachable Moment
On a blistery winter’s evening in February, just a few days before the Zhukovka gathering, the daughter of Rabbi Berel and Chani Lazar, Frady, married Rabbi Moshe Lerman at Moscow’s Royal Radisson Hotel. Formerly known as the Hotel Ukraina, it is one of seven iconic Stalinist-gothic towers built at the dictator’s bidding after World War II. (Like so much else in Russia, the Ukraina’s impeccable service, sparkling lights and patterned marble floors pleasantly mask its brutal history: Stalin’s effort to create a modern Moscow skyline was overseen by Yezhov’s successor at the renamed KGB, Lavrentiy Beria, and built with labor provided by Gulag prisoners.)
More than just a Lazar family occasion, the wedding was very much a community-wide event, drawing young and old, rich and poor. Yeshivah students who had arrived on buses danced with businessmen who had pulled up in Maybachs. Guests included rabbis who flew in from across Russia – from Omsk, Tomsk, Lipetsk and Rostov – many of them joined by local communal leaders.
As they do with so many other aspects of their lives, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries regularly use a wedding as a teachable moment, a time when they can educate people about the foundations a Jewish home is built upon. Throughout the evening, Lazar explained each step of the wedding, both the halachic and mystical. Towards the end of the night, the 1,000 or so guests received a Russian-language book on family life based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory), as well as a DVD collection of the Rebbe’s public addresses in Russian, soon to be released publicly by Jewish Educational Media (JEM).
As per Jewish tradition, the chuppah took place outside, on the hotel rooftop even as the temperature dropped.
The wedding and the subsequent festivities also became a time to recognize the unprecedented expansion of Russian-Jewish life over the course of the bride’s lifetime. Each of the traditional sheva brachot was held at a different Moscow Jewish institution. One, an evening boat ride on the Moskva River, showcased the work of the Jewell youth club, whose members organized and participated in the festivities. Another, following the Zhukovka shluchim gathering, celebrated the establishment of four new Chabad centers. During the next evening, the sheva brachot was held at the Shaarei Tzedek social-services center, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony heralded a new commercial kitchen to provide free kosher meals for the elderly and needy.
At the Zhukovka event, Lazar addressed the family, guests, Chabad rabbis and supporters as they dined on an elaborate spread in the center’s social hall, touching on the underlying theme of the festivities.
In the 1960s, “a well-known and wise Jew offered a novel idea as to how to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry,” recalled Lazar. “He said we can’t talk about it anymore – something must be done. He offered a fantastic idea: At the Pesach seder that year, each family should add an empty chair to the table as a reminder of Jews in the Soviet Union who are unable to participate in a seder.
“The whole world said, ‘Wow, this is an unbelievable idea!’ But not the Rebbe. When he heard about this, the Rebbe proclaimed: ‘You want to do something to help Soviet Jewry? Add another chair to your seder, but don’t leave it empty! Instead invite someone to your seder who would otherwise not be taking part in one! That will be a help for the Jews of the Soviet Union.’
“That is our mission here today: To continue growing so that we can reach every Jew wherever they may be.”
Economic Difficulties and Other Realities
Libman, the Moscow businessman, joined his rabbi at the evening sheva brachot at Zhukovka. His is a story similar to that of other Soviet-educated Jews. Born in Dnepropetrovsk (today in Ukraine), Libman grew up with no Jewish education aside from the distinct knowledge that he was a Jew.
“I was never shy about it at all,” he says. “In school, I would write that I’m a Jew even though I could have done otherwise. So I always understood who I was, what I am, but with no knowledge of the religion whatsoever.”
In 1980, he moved to Moscow as a student and stayed. When the waves of Soviet Jewish emigration began, he and his family considered going to America, but with no close relatives there, it was never a serious option. Following years of ingesting the government’s aggressively anti-Israel propaganda line, Libman was in no rush to move to the Holy Land, either. So he and his family remained there.
One of Libman’s first interactions with Jewish life came nine years ago, at the age of 44, when he came to the Marina Roscha Jewish Community Center requesting a brit milah, a circumcision.
“It was something I was thinking about for a while. I knew I wanted it, but it was always maybe tomorrow,” remembers Libman, who had been acquainted with Lazar since 1998. “Then I needed something to happen in my own personal life. I knew that if I’m asking G-d for something, I couldn’t come empty-handed. I knew that it was the right thing, but this pushed me.”
It was the warmth that Libman experienced when he first came to the Marina Roscha that surprised him most and had him coming back again. The rabbis at the center, beginning with Lazar, have helped him in times of need and celebrated with him when things got better.
“Rabbi Lazar is a unique person,” says Libman. “When I have good news and I share it with him, he answers that he is sincerely happy for me. I know he means it; he really is.”
At Marina Roscha, Libman met Kuperman, who at the time did not yet have his own center. Beginning with a regular Torah class, their relationship grew. Three years ago Libman and others pooled resources to support Kuperman in opening a Chabad center in their neighborhood.
Recent life in Russia, however, has not been without its difficulties. Sanctions imposed by the United States and Western Europe over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine have seriously strained the country’s economy, as has the sharp drop in oil prices. In January of 2014, one U.S. dollar was worth approximately 33 rubles; today it fluctuates in the 70s, reaching a high of 82 rubles in January. Sanctions have also meant a shortage of some Western products – shortages Russians have not experienced in years.
The economic hardships, specifically of the last nine months, have taken a toll on the financial stability of the Jewish community, something Libman and others readily admit.
“Of course, it’s having an effect,” says Libman. “Some business people have lost a lot of money, and if before you had a number of people giving 100,000 rubles a month, today we need to find more people who can give smaller amounts – 20,000 rubles a month – and even that today is not always simple. So if seven or eight months ago money just flowed in, today the rabbi has to work harder to cover the budget.”
Weisberg agrees that times have become tougher financially, but asserts that there is a positive way of looking at the situation.
“During such times, more people find ways to connect to the Jewish community,” says Weisberg. “They feel they need something more, so we’re certainly seeing more people showing up at synagogues around the country.”
While locals and visitors note a significant and palpable drop in street level anti-Semitism in the last decade in large part due to strict government policy, some Western pundits have predicted political instability for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime if the country’s economic crisis continues. Libman agrees that anti-Semitism would likely return if that were the case, but says that such forecasts don’t take into account the Russian mentality.
“We all remember standing in line for hours for a few sticks of kielbasa, so we’ve lived through far worse,” says Libman. “Circumstances are not nearly as bad as those years; short of something that drastic, I don’t see any great political changes here.”
Weisberg is also optimistic about Russian Jewry’s future. “The Rebbe spoke about the fact that all that is bad has already happened. We need to continue looking forward and focusing on our mission so that Moshiach can come. These are our plans.”