Menu JTA Search

Star of David flies over Moscow

MOSCOW, May 21 (JTA) — The symbolism was evident.

Last week, a group of Jewish children released a flock of doves at a ceremony last week marking the restoration of a dome and gilded Star of David on the capital’s main synagogue.

The new addition to the Moscow skyline came at a time when relations between Moscow’s Jewish community and the Russian authorities are marked by a relative peace.

Indeed, at the May 16 ceremony, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Adolph Shayevich, together laid a cornerstone for a new Jewish community center.

When Luzhkov was approached about the idea of restoring the dome, he reacted enthusiastically, said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi. Luzhkov helped the synagogue cut through the red tape for building permits needed in downtown Moscow and even suggested funding sources.

Luzhkov is known for his friendly relations with the Moscow Jewish community. A few years ago, he helped Lubavitch Jews restore the Marina Roscha Synagogue, which burned down in 1994.

The dome and star graced the Choral Synagogue for a short time in the early 1890s, when Czar Alexander III bent to the will of the Russian Orthodox Church and ordered them taken down.

This decree started a period of persecution for the Moscow Jewish community. Thousands of Jews were evicted from the city between 1892 and 1897, and the Jewish population of Moscow dwindled from 26,000 to 5,000.

The Choral Synagogue was closed down. It was re-opened in 1906, but for the past century it has had only a plain roof.

According to legend, the church’s opposition to the dome in the 1890s began after the then-mayor of Moscow saw the dome, thought it was an Orthodox church and crossed himself.

When Luzhkov told the story to Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who visited the Choral Synagogue last January, it turned out that Katsav already knew it.

Both laughed, apparently realizing that Luzhkov told the story to juxtapose his actions with those of his 19th-century predecessor.

In an interview with JTA, Goldschmidt emphasized that the restoration of the dome was a symbol of reconciliation not only with the Russian authorities but also with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The dedication “was a historically and politically important event. The dome was originally taken off because of the pressure of the church, and today we got congratulations from the church on the occasion of its restoration,” he said.

In addition, a Russian Orthodox priest attended the ceremony.

Despite the good feelings at the dedication, some problems remain, including money.

“We already owe the construction company roughly $1 million. And the overall cost of the works may reach $5 million, plus a similar sum to build the JCC,” Goldschmidt said.

The division within Russia’s Jewish community was also in evidence last week.

Russia’s second chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, did not attend the ceremony.

He later explained that he did not accept an invitation because other Lubavitch rabbis had not been invited.

Despite the problems, though, the event was a chance for Moscow’s Jewry to shine — and revel.

“It was a very moving experience. Here I was on a street where Yiddish and Hebrew music was being played, with Jewish adults and children dancing and singing without any fear, celebrating the renaissance of the Jewish commmuity in Moscow,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

NEXT STORY