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Synagogues in Russian towns struggle for funding, members

MOSCOW, April 1 (JTA) — More than a dozen Jewish communities across Russia have reclaimed synagogues since the fall of communism six years ago. But most of them open their doors only once a week for Shabbat services because of a lack of worshipers. Only the largest Russian Jewish communities — in Moscow and in St. Petersburg — boast a rich religious life. “In other centers, Jewish religious life is just flickering,” Russia’s chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, told Jewish activists who gathered here last week to discuss the future role of the synagogue in Russia. The second conference of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations, an umbrella body for most of Russia’s synagogues, attracted leaders of 30 congregations. Estimates of the Jewish population in Russia run between 600,000 and 2 million. Shayevich said little had been done since the group’s first conference in 1993 to further Jewish religious revival in Russia. The two main problems facing synagogues have been a lack of funds and the declining population resulting from the mass emigration of Russian Jews, he added. The financial situation improved somewhat after the creation of the Russian Jewish Congress last year. The congress now pays for public utilities in most of the synagogues and it sponsors projects aimed at fostering religious activity. A recent survey of Russian Jewry revealed that 75 percent of Jews in Russia never go to synagogue. Conference participants complained that the younger generation was not interested in going to synagogue. “To attract Jewish youth there should be a knowledgeable leader who could lead young people,” said Viktor Shapiro, chairman of the Jewish community in Kaliningrad and the leader of a congregation of 40 young Jews. Andrey Osherov, a community leader from the central Russian town of Kostroma, said Shabbat services in his synagogue attract 25 to 50 people out of the town’s 1,000 Jews. “If we had a rabbi, we would have attracted more people to the services,” Osherov said. Many synagogues that do not have permanent rabbis are served by emissaries of the worldwide Lubavitch movement who visit periodically. Most rabbis working in Russia are Lubavitch representatives. Some conference participants voiced the view that refurbishing synagogues would increase attendance. “Some feel embarrassed to go to a poor-looking synagogue which they can not be proud of,” said Yakov Bril, chairman of the synagogue in Krasnoyarsk, in central Siberia. Bril’s synagogue is financing itself. Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt believes that Russian synagogues can support themselves if local leaders learn how to involve unaffiliated Jews. “The leaders have to go look for the Jews, get people involved and make the synagogue look attractive,” he said. To survive over the long-term, synagogues will have to draw financial support from local Jewish businesspeople and become “real communities with membership,” he said.