MOSCOW (JTA) – Israel’s new ambassador to Russia praised Russian authorities’ religious tolerance during his first speech at a Jewish community event.
Zvi Heifetz, who was born in the former Soviet Union, thanked Russia on Tuesday during an annual event organized beginning in 2003 at the Kremlin by the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. Some 6,000 people attended the event.
“Thanks to this tolerance, I do not know of a country in the Diaspora where a Jew can lead a better life than in Russia,” Heifetz said. This was “especially significant in light of past hardships,” he added, referring to the Soviet Union’s state-encouraged anti-Semitism.
Heifetz, who arrived in Moscow last month, noted the opening on Monday of a $20 million Jewish community center and synagogue in Zhukovka, an affluent suburb of Moscow where several Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, own houses.
The new synagogue, which has four stories and 54,000 square feet of floor space, is headed by Federation President Rabbi Alexander Boroda.
“For those of us unfamiliar with the reality 30 years ago, it is very difficult to comprehend how difficult it was then,” said Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, at the event Tuesday.
Rabbi Boruch Gorin, chairman of Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, added, “It was nearly impossible for a Jewish organization to exist back then, much less give out prizes at the Kremlin.”
At the event, the federation conferred its Fiddler on the Roof Award on 10 individuals who contributed to Jewish life in Russia this year.
“It’s important for me to receive this award here, where the most anti-Semitic policies were designed,” said Yossef Bigun, a former refusenik who spent 10 years in Soviet prisons for teaching Hebrew.
Also honored was Yegor Odintsov, founder of Moscow’s first Jewish film festival. The prize for special contribution in journalism went to JTA’s Europe correspondent, Cnaan Liphshiz.