Many of the elderly Jews filling the pews of the Choral Synagogue here on an unseasonably warm afternoon come for the same reason that would have drawn them during Soviet times: matzah.
This year, however, 69-year-old Galina Gershuni is receiving something she unlikely would not have in those darker days: a history lesson with the unleavened Passover bread.
"I learned about the marriage between God and the people of Israel," says the bright-eyed grandmother, peering out from beneath her flowery headscarf. "It touched my heart."
Matzah, long considered the life blood that sustained Soviet Jewry through the most difficult years of Soviet repression, for decades was the only visible symbol of Jewish life available in the Russian capital.
Throughout those years, the main Choral Synagogue was the one place the Soviet authorities would allow consistently to distribute matzah during Passover.
Now that the restrictions on Jewish life that once forced Russian Jews to consume matzah in the secrecy of their homes no longer exists, the Choral Synagogue is trying to revise its mission.
"The main problem is that most Jews aren’t connected to the community at all," says community leader Artyem Vitkin, 27, echoing a complaint that has remained despite 16 years of religious freedom.
This second annual Meals For Pesach organized by KEROOR, the umbrella group for Russia’s non-chasidic Orthodox congregations, is aiming to change that with an outreach program providing free matzah and kosher wine combined with a lecture on the rituals and traditions of the holiday.
Before receiving one of the complimentary blue bags containing the wine and matzah, people hear a 10-minute lecture about what Vitkin calls "the deeper meaning of the holiday."
The program, aimed at serving the entire community, seems significantly more successful among the older generation. Although a synagogue representative told JTA that 7 to! 10 perce nt of attendees are youth, the youngest people present at the lectures looked to be in their 40s.
David Yushuvaev, the shul’s full-time rabbi, is ill, so Israeli Rabbi Mikhail Gitikh is delivering this year’s lectures via a large movie screen placed on the dais.
Many of the elderly attendees chat among themselves as the smiling rabbi recounts the story of the Exodus, but some seem as rapt by Gitikh’s talk as Gershuni.
For a people starved for decades both of a sense of community and knowledge of their own history, both reactions seem appropriate.
Once Gitikh completes his speech, a throng of teenage volunteers from the synagogue’s religious school stream into the room, the blue bags slung around their arms, and begin the laborious process of checking everyone’s name and ID card before handing out the gifts.
In keeping with the day’s theme, 18-year-old volunteer Sarah Grushevskaya, a student of Judaica at the Russian State University for the Humanities, describes her mission as more than simply handing out free food.
"Helping people is the most important thing," she says. "I try to explain to them that Pesach is relevant to them and to their children."
These same boxes of matzah and wine given out for free during the Meals for Pesach programs are on sale for about $1.50 in the synagogue’s shop for those who can afford it.
One wealthy patron of the community, who asked to remain anonymous, paid for the considerable cost of importing the 5,000 packages from Ukraine.
The first day of the weeklong drive was a huge success. Nearly 1,400 people showed up, with lines already winding down the cobblestone street outside the synagogue before the building opened at 10 a.m. By mid-afternoon of the second day, things appeared to be much the same.
This is good news for KEROOR, which saw a two-year lull in attendance at the Choral Synagogue while the building was undergoing a highly publicized renovation. Vitkin! says th ings have pretty much returned to normal.
There is one problem, he notes.
"We’re afraid we might not have enough matzah," he says. Vitkin adds, flashing a big smile, "But God knows what he is doing."