TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) — The prime minister of the Caucasus nation of Georgia is scheduled to attend the anniversary of the country’s oldest functioning synagogue, leaders of Georgia’s Jewish community said.
The ceremony in Oni, a municipality located on a mountain ridge 120 miles northwest of the capital Tbilisi, is set to take place on Sept. 2 at the historic building, which was built 120 years ago, according to Micho Benzion, an Oni-born shochet, or Jewish ritual slaughterer, who now lives in Tbilisi. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili will be the guest of honor.
“It’s a bittersweet occasion,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s symbolic of how the government supports us here, in a country with virtually no anti-Semitism. On the other, it’s a reminder of how our oldest synagogue, once full of life, has become a monument.”
Oni, once home to many thousands of Jews, now has 16, according to Benzion.
Georgia used to have 250,000 Jews, who belong to an ancient community that some say dates back 2,000 years and has developed its own endemic customs, including special prayer styles. Most of them moved to Israel in the 1970s and 1990s, with only a few thousand remaining in Georgia.
Meir Kozlovsky, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s chief emissary to Georgia, said the Oni community does not have “proper minyan” — a prayer quorum, which, in Orthodox Jewish communities, consists of at least 10 Jewish men. Women are therefore called on to provide an approximation of one.
Kozlovsky said that, in addition to being Georgia’s oldest, “Oni is a symbol of coexistence” because in 1917, local Jews and non-Jews physically prevented Communists following Soviet orders from demolishing the building. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.
The synagogue was severely damaged in the 1991 Racha earthquake and renovated with support from the government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee four years later. Then Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze attended the re-dedication ceremony.