SAMARA, Russia (Feb. 4)
The mayor of Jerusalem has visited the Russian city that his family left soon after the 1917 Revolution.
On his tour, local officials promised Ehud Olmert to resolve a synagogue dispute in this city of 1.5 million people, which is home to 15,000 Jews, including some prominent intellectuals and entrepreneurs.
At the turn of the century, Samara’s burgeoning trade and industry earned the town a nickname as a “Russian Chicago.” At the time, the highly visible Jewish community had three synagogues — including the Choral Synagogue, which held over 1,000 worshipers and was one of the biggest in the Russian Empire.
The Choral Synagogue was confiscated by Bolsheviks in the early 1920s and later turned into a bakery that still occupies the building.
Last year, local administration decided to return the property to the community, but the bakery refused to leave.
Samara officials promised Olmert they would soon resolve the issue.
Today, the community uses a small synagogue that was constructed in the 1880s and returned to the Jews three years ago.
The Lubavitch movement broke the community’s spiritual isolation in 1996 by sending a permanent rabbi from Jerusalem to the city, which is on the banks of the Volga River about 600 miles east of Moscow. Until the fall of communism, foreign visitors were banned from Samara because it was a center for military industry.
Olmert attended the dedication of a Jewish kindergarten that is co-sponsored by local authorities, the Lubavitch movement and local Jewish entrepeneurs.
Some Samara Jews are still afraid to identify with the community, which now boasts two dozen Jewish organizations, two monthly newspapers and a radio show that is on the air 8 hours a week.
Despite this fear, and an emigration rate of about 500 people a year, the Samara Jewish community has a future, says Zisi Weitzman, editor of the Samara- based Volga Jewish Gazette.
“As long as economic reforms keep going, there is a future for us,” he said.