SAMARA, Russia (Jan. 23)
The only working synagogue here is hidden behind a cluster of ramshackle storage sheds in the backyard of a rotting czarist-era building.
The modest 94-year-old institution, located along a side street in the city’s old town, managed for 70 years to evade closure by Soviet authorities.
And on Sunday it tossed off any remaining shred of the secrecy that had been necessary for its survival.
The synagogue received Samara’s first new Torah scroll in over 100 years, showed off a new soup kitchen that will partially run on local donations, and opened both men’s and women’s mikvahs.
Several hundred local Jews were on hand for the events, along with the regional governor and Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis.
They all gathered outside the apartment of resident Rabbi Shlomo Deutch and paraded to the synagogue along a path that took them across one of the central Russian city’s main commercial areas, Leningrad Street.
They carried the new Torah, with a brass band in tow playing traditional Jewish music.
Local television, radio and newspaper media were present to cover the parade, and scores of non-Jews watched with curiosity, a few even dancing to the music.
But more than anyone else, the ebullient mood seemed to surprise the Jews of this central Russian city of 1.2 million people.
“Many people came over to me and told me that they couldn’t believe this was happening,” said Lazar, who marched in the parade. “They couldn’t believe that people could be so open about their religion.”
Some of Samara’s Jews — the community is estimated at between 10,000 to 20,000 — were not quite ready to test the waters.
“Some are still afraid to come,” said Stanislav Vagner, 20, who attended a post-march party at the synagogue with his non-Jewish wife.
By contrast, a Russian police officer watching the parade from the edge of the street, which was blocked off for the occasion, said he thought there was nothing strange about what he saw.
“Everyone has the freedom to do what he wants,” he said. “I don’t mind” the parade “at all.”
The governor of the region of Samara, Konstantin Titov, who also walked in the parade, later said, “Freedom is the only thing that will keep Jews here — freedom of choice and freedom to do as they please.”
Indeed, few of the Jews in Samara these days will dispute the claim that they have the freedom to practice Judaism. But many Jews still believe they are not free of suspicion.
“It’s not that the Russians love us,” said congregation member Zinovy Haiken, a retired engineer, after Sunday’s party. “It’s that they have to start making money to survive” and “they think Jews can help them do that.”
Sunday’s festivities hinted at a remarkable change taking place in the Jewish community in Samara: Jews here are creating a religious and social community that is beginning to accept the notion of social responsibility and to support itself financially.
Local Russian Jewish philanthropy is still in its fledgling stages, but in Samara, the effects can be seen.
“When we opened our old soup kitchen three years ago, we didn’t have any money,” said Deutch, a Lubavitch rabbi from Israel who is affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the largest Jewish group working in the country.
“Now, there is competition among givers to see who can give more.”
Although the new soup kitchen and Torah scrolls have all come from foreign donors, the synagogue has managed to supply food for the soup kitchen — which will now be feeding 300 people daily — and a car and personnel to deliver food to homebound elderly Jews each day from money donated from local Jews.
The Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network, which Deutch said donated $150,000 for the soup kitchen and equipment, said it would not have given the money if the synagogue wasn’t able to support the kitchen by itself.
“The ability of the local community to keep up the program was the main factor in deciding to give the money for a soup kitchen” to Samara, said Eli Livshitz, Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network’s country director for Russia. “The community here is one of the most vibrant and energetic communities” in the Former Soviet Union.
Livshitz said that although many communities have applied for money to build soup kitchens, the only other network-supported kitchen in Russia was in St. Petersburg.
In addition to supplying its new soup kitchen with food, Samara’s synagogue also holds elaborate holiday concerts that are funded locally, and its Sunday school and a youth club are partly supported by locals.
Deutch says that a culture of philanthropy has been forming ever since Russia’s economic crisis in 1998. Since then, the economy has performed relatively well, and Samara’s small wealthy class, a significant part of which he says is Jewish, has prospered and begun to understand the importance of philanthropy.
“People today understand that we have to build up our community in Samara. If we don’t do it, nobody will,” said Deutch.
One exemplar of this trend is Roman Bagel, 43, a native of Ukraine and the general director of Samara’s first Western-style mall.
Bagel said his grandparents taught him to observe Jewish traditions while he was growing up in the Ukrainian town of Shergorod.
He moved to Samara 25 years ago to study at a university, stayed because of he got a job here and began attending the synagogue after his mother died in 1998.
Gradually, Bagel said, he became more involved in the Jewish community Deutch had started leading in 1996, lured in by the chance to speak Yiddish, which he learned as a child, with Deutch.
Today, Bagel acts as the unofficial synagogue president, Deutch says, and works hard to try to solicit donations from other successful Jews in Samara.
In addition, he heads the $3 million project of restoring Samara’s enormous synagogue with donations primarily from local Jews.