MOSCOW, Aug. 1 (JTA) — A fire ravaged the oldest synagogue in Siberia, leaving Irkutsk without one. The former Soldiers Synagogue in Irkutsk, which was built in the provincial Siberian city in 1881 by retired Jewish soldiers of the Tsarist army, was practically devoured by fire late last month. No one was hurt in the blaze, which tore through the two-story wooden building in this city of 675,000. The synagogue’s outer walls were left standing, but much of what remained of the interior was severely damaged by water used to extinguish the flames. The police and fire authorities ruled out arson as a potential cause of the fire. The city’s Jewish leaders agree with this assessment, though it was noted that no one was supposed to be in the building at the time it caught fire. “It is too early to tell for sure what caused the fire, but the arson version looks unfounded now and is not being discussed seriously,” Olga Sosna, president of the Irkutsk Jewish Community Center, told JTA. The fire authorities said the blaze most likely resulted from either a short circuit or a small fire that grew out of control. The building also housed a Jewish community center that included offices, a dining hall for elderly and needy Jews and space for other communal activities. Irkutsk is home to 7,000 to 10,000 Jews. Because the synagogue was being prepared for a major renovation later in the year, its destruction is not likely to disrupt the day-to-day life of the local community. According to Sosna, some activities had already been moved to temporary locations in anticipation of the renovation, and the dining hall has recently reached an agreement with a local restaurant, allowing the community to use its facilities. About a month ago, the Federation of Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization responsible for operating the synagogue, approved a $1.5 million budget for the building’s renovation, a figure the group said it will now have to increase. In one bit of good luck, the synagogue’s rabbi had recently taken the congregation’s Torah scroll to Israel for repair and, as such, it was not harmed in the fire. Also, Sosna said, most of the synagogue’s documents were rescued from the building. In accordance with Jewish law, a burial ceremony was scheduled for those religious books that were damaged by fire. Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the FJC, said the ceremony “will be a statement of the community on this tragedy.” In addition to its age, the synagogue was rare in Russia in that it remained open during most of its 120-year history, except for a short period between 1934-1947 when it was closed by authorities. The second story, which included the prayer hall, was returned to Jewish hands in 1947, and the rest of the building in 1991. In 1994, six Torah scrolls were stolen from the synagogue. Still, local Jewish leaders said that they have enjoyed very good relations with the authorities and the local population since the fall of communism. Hours after the fire, leaders of the FJC, a Chabad-led group, vowed to raise the amount of money necessary to rebuild the synagogue. “It’s quite a tragic irony that this happened on the 9th of Av,” said Berkowitz, in reference to the Jewish fast day marking the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. “But no matter what the results of the investigation, the synagogue is going to be rebuilt in its former glory.” Berkowitz said that the government and police have promised the Jewish community that they would thoroughly investigate.
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