The president of Austria raised a glass in a toast of "L’chayim" this week to help inaugurate Vienna’s first new synagogue in 68 years.
The presence of Thomas Klestil and other prominent Austrians underlined a clearly perceptible improvement in the atmosphere since Kurt Waldheim stepped down as president last year amid continued focus on his Nazi past.
The new Sephardic house of worship, dedicated on Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of the Sukkot holiday, serves a community of 5,000 Jewish immigrants from the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. They brought their own prayer traditions to Vienna over the past two decades, when the city was the sole transit point for Soviet Jews en route to Israel or the United States.
The new synagogue stands in the prewar district nicknamed Mazzesinsel (island of matzot) in recognition of its then-thriving Jewish life. Vienna following World War I had a Jewish population of 220,000.
Klestil listened to a children’s choir at the ceremony and thanked the Jewish community for once again creating a Jewish center in Vienna, where Jews had been persecuted in the past.
"I want to commit myself to these children, whose songs have touched me so deeply" that "they should live happily and without fear," the president said.
Rudolf Scholten, the minister of education and culture, as well as leaders of Parliament and the municipality were present to help dedicate the center, which replaces rented premises used by Georgian and Bukharan Jews as well as Jews from the Caucasus. Jewish tradition survived more strongly in these areas which were distant from the center of communist rule in European Russia.
The center, which cost some $650,000, was made possible by the help of contributions of $250,000 each by the Austrian Education Ministry and the city of Vienna, and $150,000 from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
The president of the Sephardic community, Grigori Galibov, said Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union stood a good chance of integrating into Austrian society without losing their Jewish identity. "Our people can be found in shoe repair shops as well as in the universities," he said.
Further evidence of integration was cited by Chief Rabbi Paul Hayim Eisenberg, who observed that some young Jewish men among the recent immigrants had already fulfilled their civic duty by serving in the Austrian army.
A more somber note was struck by the president of the Austrian Jewish community, who alluded to the recent wave of xenophobic and anti-Semitic incidents in Germany.
Paul Grosz called on Austrian politicians to "learn from mistakes made in the past" by others and by themselves. He said, too, that the new synagogue reflects the growing strength of the Austrian Jewish community, which now numbers about 15,000.
Three young rabbis of the Chabad movement placed the Torah scrolls in the Ark of the new synagogue, where they will be serving. They were trained at a yeshiva in Vienna supported by the Lauder Foundation and the worldwide Chabad movement of Lubavitcher Hasidim. Ronald Lauder is a former U.S. ambassador to Austria.