Around the back of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue, just behind the historic sanctuary where white-bearded men pray beneath an ornate chandelier and a Star of David etched in gold leaf and royal blue, visitors can traipse their way to a messy outdoor courtyard and a small, dark room.
From here, goats bleat and chickens squawk as ritual slaughtering takes place just a few steps away from the morning davening.
Until recently, visiting the synagogue with a live animal was just about the only way to get kosher meat in Moscow, and strict observance of Jewish dietary laws was nearly impossible. But now, kosher food products — even a kosher soup kitchen — can be found in Russia’s capital.
Slaughtering still occurs behind synagogues, but much more work is done in factories, where literally tons of kosher meat are prepared each month.
The shift underscores the establishment of a Jewish community infrastructure here and the development of a small but significant number of religious Jews in a country where the practice of religious Judaism was repressed until 1989.
“It would not be a reflection of reality to say that the majority of the community knows about or is interested in kosher food, but keeping kosher is one of the main markers of being religious,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the city’s chief rabbi.
“If you want to offer a religious education to Moscow Jews, you need the ability to have kosher food,” he said.
Russia’s capital, home to an estimated 250,000 Jews, is now the site of a great number of Jewish religious institutions.
Goldschmidt said these organizations which include five synagogues, four post-high school yeshivas, four teachers seminaries and four religious day schools — are the main consumers of kosher food.
MORE ISRAELI AND AMERICAN FOOD PRODUCTS SOLD
There are also an estimated 1,500 religious families in Moscow and another 500 families of Jews from Georgia who moved to Moscow to escape civil war.
The new availability of kosher products is partly due to sweeping changes in Russia, where there are multiplying numbers of stores and kiosks selling Israeli and American food products.
But the increase in kosher meat is largely the result of the energy and commitment of Yehudah Seidenfeld, 25, the shochet, or ritual slaughterer, at Moscow’s main synagogue.
Originally from Monsey, N.Y., Seidenfeld was ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem and came to Russia three years ago with his wife and family in search of adventure and a place where their Jewish knowledge was much-needed.
After improving his Russian while teaching in a Jewish high school, Seidenfeld became the rabbi for small Jewish communities in the Ural Mountains region and Siberia. But he soon took on the task of improving Moscow’s kosher meat supply.
Slim, bearded, with black, wire-rimmed glasses, Seidenfeld appears entirely at home in a suit with a spotless white shirt and tzitzit (ritual fringes) dangling from the side. But it turns out that he is just as comfortable in rubber boots, sweat pants and a T-shirt, with his arms deep in goat guts.
Kosher slaughter has become his vocation, and he often works as many as 12 or 14 hours a day. With money from the Canadian Foundation, the Rich Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Seidenfeld purchased equipment that made it possible to do efficient kosher slaughter in Russian meat factories.
Last June, he started scouring the city for places to work. After visiting three of four beef slaughterhouses and about 10 chicken slaughter-houses, he was under-impressed.
In many cases, animals raised in collective farms were so sickly he did not consider them suitable for slaughter. As for hygiene standards, they left quite a bit to be desired.
BUYING MANAGERS WITH ‘A FEW BOTTLES AND CASH’
“If the United States Department of Agriculture walked in the front door, they would close down every meat factory in this country in 30 seconds,” he said.
When Seidenfeld eventually found some factories he could work with, he had to develop a relationship with the managers and the workers.
The managers were easy: He bought his way in with “a few bottles and cash,” the way a large portion of business is conducted here.
But the workers were a bit more difficult. “I had to earn their respect,” he recalled.
At the beef factory, this was achieved when Seidenfeld announced he would kill a 500-pound bull by slaughtering it with a knife, as is required by Jewish law, instead of killing it with electric shock, the method used in Russia.
“The workers said: ‘If the Jews are crazy enough to kill themselves, let ‘em do it,’” Seidenfeld recounted. “When I was done, they were like: ‘Wow! Check out this guy! He knows how to work!’
“It was very interesting to them that a Jewish person, especially a rabbi, actually knows how to do physical work.”
This is not the only kosher meat prepared on a large scale in Moscow: A Lubavitch shochet slaughters and sells about one ton of meat a month, while Seidenfeld and his assistants put out between five and 10 tons a month.
Some of the most regular demand for kosher meat, especially for fresh kosher meat, comes from Georgian Jews, who managed to retain a much stronger sense of Jewish tradition than many others Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Michael Jacobishvili arrived at the synagogue early one recent Sunday morning with two chickens and four baby goats, all traveling in the back of his silver BMW. It was the third Sunday in a row that he had come to the synagogue for kosher slaughtering.
“I do this because I am a Jew,” he explained. “I was born as a Jew, I want to live according to this tradition and to die as a Jew. Our ancestors lived this way and gave this kosher tradition to us.”
With that, he took his goats and chickens and headed out the back of the synagogue.