Viewing Jewish Life in Moscow in August, 2010

In 1988, I first traveled to the former Soviet Union. Not only did I take kosher food with me but I also had to be very careful about the public display of my Jewishness and my connection to Jews living in the countries of the USSR. Over the years, I have visited many places within the region and have been to cities like Riga, Vilna, Minsk, Kiev, Odessa, and Kishinev, among others. Although I loved traveling to the various cities, meeting local Jewish leaders and residents, and learning about the Jewish communities, I always felt living a Jewish life style required a great deal of effort and was not easy in any of these places.

Yesterday, I returned from a ten day visit to Russia and very few of my friends in Israel could believe that my wife, Marsha, and I actually vacationed in Moscow. In the weeks prior to the visit people asked, “You are going where for vacation?” or “Why would you want to take a vacation in Moscow?” Of course, having been to the City more than a dozen times over the last twenty plus years, I have friends who live there and I wanted to spend time with them. I have also developed a love for the aesthetic quality of Moscow. It has a unique architecture, albeit built during the Soviet years of ruling the country, and there is a plethora of wonderful art museums and galleries that is testimony to the wonderful appreciation of culture throughout the City. However, we did miss the Bolshoi Ballet as they were outside Moscow for the summer.

Having said all this, the most moving part of the visit was learning about the present state of Jewish life in the City for the people who want to learn about Judaism or take advantage of the richness of opportunities. During the last twenty plus years the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and other organizations and foundations have made important contributions to the rebirth of Jewish life. However, it is now evident that local philanthropists and organizations are stepping in and assuming responsibility for some of the wonderful developments.

There are not only three major synagogues in Moscow, but there is also an effort to begin local neighborhood “minyanim” (prayer services). For example, a new hi-rise apartment building was constructed in the city center and a number of Jewish families bought apartments in the building and acquired additional space to create a synagogue in the building. This would have been unheard of, and even outlawed, 25 years ago, and today it is a reality. In a similar way there is a plan to create local “minyanim” in areas where there are concentrations of Jewish people to support the activities of these “local synagogues”.

Of course kosher food is a very important part of Jewish life. During the visit we were able to visit three kosher restaurants and to notice they were all doing a brisk business. Personally we found the quality of the food on the same level with any kosher restaurant in North American or Israel. Eating in these places was a culinary delight and there was a good selection of kosher wines from countries around the globe.

On Friday morning, we were able to purchase prepared food that was organized by a kosher restaurant in one of the synagogues in the city. The food was fresh, plentiful and very tasty. In addition each table had a stack of plates and forks so that purchasers could sample the dishes before deciding to purchase specific items. I felt like I had eaten breakfast by the time we left with food for Shabbat lunch.

Not only are there several synagogues throughout the city but each one has several minyanim in the morning. People have a choice of going to one of three services in the morning. This might not seem like anything special but when you realize that Jewish prayer services were illegal (if not controlled by the government until 20 years ago) this is a miracle!

When asked about “Shaare Zedek” most of us think about the hospital in Jerusalem, however, in Moscow this is the mutli-service medical center in the middle of the city. People come from all over to avail themselves of the finest expert medical care that is provided to the Jewish community. It is patterned after the “Hesed” concept that was developed by the JDC years ago and has been expanded to meet the growing needs of the Jewish population in Moscow. As an added benefit, there is a small “take out” kosher food department so people can buy ready made foods during the week.

Perhaps the two real highlights of the visit for me were the Shabbat meal served in the Marina Rocha Synagogue and the kosher food available in regular stores. Friday night, the Synagogue sponsors several dinners for expatriate Israelis, expatriate English speakers, local young leaders, and one for the general community. No prior reservations are needed and whoever shows up is more than welcome to join.

We felt most comfortable joining the Israelis and more than 100 people were there the Shabbat we were, and this was considered a small group because many were still away for summer vacations. We participated in a Friday night service, and joined the group for dinner which included some singing and a few short “D’vrei Torah” (of which I was asked to give one.) All were welcomed warmly and made to feel very much at home.

Perhaps the most surprising development was walking into a regular (non-kosher) supermarket and finding Russian produced food products with the kosher symbol of the local rabbinic organization on the package. This was something very special and brought back memories of having to bring all food products to Russia because there was no kosher food available at all anywhere in the country. Last, but not least, was what I experienced when I entered a non-kosher bakery and noticed a letter on the wall from the Rabbinical Council of Moscow listing all of the kosher products that could be purchased in the bakery as they were made under rabbinical supervision. I could not resist and bought a sampling of freshly baked bread that tasted delicious and was a symbol of the new Jewish experience in Moscow.

Of course, I have not mentioned the classes, seminars, day schools, summer camps, university programs or the number other opportunities that now enhance Jewish life in the city. Needless to say, Moscow is a beautiful city that is now “Jewishly Friendly” and provides opportunities for local Jews to live a Jewish life and for tourists to feel very comfortable visiting the developing community. Having participated in my first rally to support Soviet Jewry during Sukkot of 1964, I thought it was a miracle to welcome these Jews to Israel in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and now it is a second miracle to witness the quality of Jewish life in Moscow today.

Stephen G. Donshik, a long-time Jewish communal professional, is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program.