KAZAN, Russia (Dec. 12)
Isaac remembers the time when his father would take him and his younger brother to the synagogue in this city’s downtown some 70 years ago.
Kazan’s Jewish community had gained czarist government permission 100 years ago to open a synagogue, and the building was dedicated in 1911.
But in 1928, the Communist authorities confiscated the 3-story building and turned it into a teacher’s club.
After the city’s sole synagogue was shut down, “Father wouldn’t take his kids with him when going to pray in a small private house,” said Isaac, 79, a retired pharmacist. “He was afraid that we could tell anyone at school or elsewhere that we were taking part in sort-of-illegal religious gatherings.”
The struggle to regain ownership of the building that began in earnest five years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, came to an end this week with the rededication of the synagogue in Kazan’s historical center.
Hundreds of Kazan Jews packed the synagogue Tuesday to celebrate its official return to the Jewish community. They were joined by leaders of the Russian Jewish community, Jewish activists from across Russia, and Israeli and Tatarstan government officials.
Among those attending were the Vladimir Gusinsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress; Aliza Shenhar, Israel’s ambassador to Russia; Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, chief rabbi of Russia; Kazan Mayor Kamil Iskhakov; and emissaries of the Lubavitch movement.
Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, formerly the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and now a constituent part of the Russian Federation. Tatarstan, with a population of 3.6 million, has a Jewish community of some 15,000, most of whom live here, in the capital city.
The reopening of Kazan’s only synagogue is expected to boost efforts to revive the Jewish community.
When Avraham Lerer, a representative of the worldwide Lubavitch movement, first came to Kazan in 1993, he found a small group of elderly Jews praying in a private home.
“There was nothing here at that time except for a minyan of elderly Jewish men,” said Lerer, now the chief rabbi of Kazan.
Regaining possession of the synagogue building will help the Jewish community expand its activities, Lerer said.
“Having its own physical center, the Jewish community in Tatarstan will rebuild itself in a natural way,” said Gusinsky, head of the Russian Jewish Congress.
According to Yuriy Pliner, a local businessman and community leader, the synagogue will become a Jewish community center serving various communal needs.
The building will be used for religious, cultural and educational purposes. All the city’s Jewish organizations, including local offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Russian Jewish Congress, will be located in the building.
It will also house the Sunday school, which now has 80 students, and a welfare facility providing hot meals and other assistance for those in need.
However, before these plans can be realized, Pliner said, substantial funds are needed to refurbish the building, whose bare walls have cracks and water damage from years of neglect.
The cost of renovations will be at least $200,000. Sponsors of the project are expected to include local Jewish business leaders, the Russian Jewish Congress, Chabad Lubavitch, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Tatarstan government.
Some Jewish leaders hailed the official return of the synagogue because it took place in a predominantly Muslim republic.
“Many doubted that this will ever happen in a Muslim country,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, a member of the presidium of the Russian Jewish Congress.
While Islamic fundamentalism has attracted some followers in this republic since the fall of communism, Tatarstan officials pursue a policy of non- discrimination toward religious and ethnic minorities, said one Jewish official here.
About 40 percent of the Tatarstan population is not Muslim.
The cordial relationship between the Jewish community and the government was reflected in the meeting held between Russian Jewish leaders and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaymiev.
The Tatar leader promised that the country would continue to be a safe and comfortable place for Jews.
Shaymiev asked Gusinsky, who headed the Jewish delegation, to help Tatarstan in attracting increased foreign investment. Gusinsky also is president of Most Bank, one of Russia’s leading financial institutions.
Some Moscow newspapers said Tatarstan’s economic interests were behind the government’s return of the synagogue.
Meanwhile, efforts are continuing to regain possession of synagogues in other parts of Russia.
The Russian law on restitution of property that belonged to religious communities was signed more than five years ago, but most of the country’s synagogues still have not been returned.
In many places, the government is confronting problems in finding new homes for the institutions housed in buildings claimed by Jewish communities.
At the same time, some Jewish communities have been reluctant to reclaim ownership of confiscated synagogues because they lack the funds to maintain the buildings.
The Russian Jewish Congress has listed about 20 synagogues it wants to reclaim in the near future.
The community of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk is likely to regain possession of its synagogue next year.
The use of the old Novosibirsk synagogue during and after Soviet rule is probably the most unusual in the former Soviet Union.
Now encircled by barbed wire, this turn-of-the century synagogue was incorporated after the Bolshevik Revolution into the local penitentiary complex. For decades, it has been serving as the prison’s dining facility.