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Across the Former Soviet Union Moscow Rabbi, a Symbol of Resistance, Seeks Fusion Between Past and P

September 10, 2004
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The 25-foot-long tunnel running beneath Moscow’s Bronnaya Street Synagogue is highly symbolic of the past — it was built in the 1880s amid fears of pogroms. But standing on the exposed top floor of the synagogue’s as-yet unfinished community center, Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan — his shoes covered in concrete dust — is still optimistic about the future.

“I love looking from here,” says the sturdy, white-bearded Kogan, who has served as the shul’s spiritual leader for the past 12 years. “We’ll have kids activities here and a new hall for weddings, a museum, a winter garden, and the old synagogue will be closed up in glass.”

Although Kogan, 58, admits he is no cracker-jack fund-raiser, a few substantial gifts from local and foreign donors has allowed the 100-year-old synagogue — which for the last decade has served as the activities center for the fervently Orthodox Agudas Hasidei Chabad organization — to go ahead with its ambitious plan! s to restore the venerable shul and put up the new community center next door.

Hundreds of people attended events over the weekend marking the inauguration of the synagogue.

Even as the revamped synagogue gives a boost to Moscow’s Jewish community, Kogan himself is seen as the embodiment of the years-long struggle of Russian Jews for spiritual survival in a restrictive Soviet state.

For one thing, he is the first of the synagogue’s rabbis born in the former Soviet Union since 1937, when Moshko Haim Gurtenberg was convicted and shot by the Soviet secret police for “anti-Soviet activities.”

For another, Kogan is one of the few current Jewish leaders who was a member of the Soviet-era Jewish resistance.

The Bronnaya Synagogue was among the first Jewish institutions in the post-Soviet era to cater to the basic needs of the largely assimilated and Jewishly ignorant population in the post-Soviet era.

Agudas Hasidei Chabad claimed the historic synagogue back from! the city in 1991 after a bitter two-year struggle with a local Reform congregation that had also asserted rights to the building.

In little more than a decade, the shul was the target of three attempted bombings. In the most serious of these incidents, dozens of people attending a family celebration in 1999 narrowly escaped tragedy when Kogan’s teenaged son discovered an explosive device hidden inside the prayer hall.

After that incident, Kogan says, “I had this dream to bring the synagogue to its original look.”

Displaying a paper model of the new community center, Kogan says, smiling: “Doesn’t it resemble something to you? To me it looks like a submarine.” He points at the model, noting a semi-circular tower and a round structure that will dominate the top of the building.

Kogan, who has a degree in engineering, likes this comparison to a submarine — during the Soviet period, he made a career at the design bureau of a Leningrad plant that built Soviet nuclear subs.

Also Kogan spent the Soviet years in Leningrad, now known as! St. Petersburg, living on two decks.

On the upper deck was a Soviet job and studies at a Soviet school. On the lower deck, hidden from the authorities, was a small circle of Jews that tried to maintain Jewish tradition.

During Soviet time, the Leningrad authorities were especially tough on enforcing anti-Jewish restrictions. Keeping kosher, Kogan says, was extremely difficult. “I’ve known families where the older generation kept kosher and the younger didn’t,” he says.

There were times when his own family didn’t see meat for months. When Kogan got married and had children of his own, he learned shechitah, or Jewish ritual slaughtering, in order to feed his own family and others in similar circumstances.

In 1972, Kogan’s family applied for emigration to Israel and was refused an exit visa because of his sensitive military job and his “anti-Soviet activity.”

Being refused permission to emigrate, Kogan says, “meant to become an outcast of the society.”

“I ! asked myself, ‘How could people in similar circumstances in the past g enerations endure this?’ ” he recalls. “Spirituality was the key.”

For many Leningrad Jews at the time, Kogan became a symbol of spiritual resistance to the regime. His figure still remains a kind of a legend for many in the Chabad movement, earning him a reputation as a tzadik, or a righteous man.

Indeed, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, many younger Chabadniks may not know the name Yitzhak Kogan, “But ask them if they ever heard of the ‘Tzadik of Leningrad.’ “

It took Kogan 14 years to receive permission to leave the country. In 1989, he and his family made aliyah. The very next year Kogan returned to Russia with a mandate from the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“I didn’t want to go,” Kogan says. “It was very hard and unpleasant to go back, when it took us 14 years to leave.”

It took him time, he says, to realize that a void in the Jewish community still had to ! be filled even after the collapse of communism.

“I didn’t want to be a rabbi when I moved in Israel. I was thinking that being a full-time religious worker is for someone who can’t do anything else,” says Kogan. “Before we left for Israel, I filled a vacuum, I simply did things that no one else would do.”

Kogan and his wife, Sofya, have five children, three of whom remain in Israel, and two of whom live in Moscow.

Kogan takes a special pride in a large-scale kosher meat production operation he set up a few years ago at a meat processing plant near Moscow.

He personally slaughters animals at the plant several times each week, ensuring a weekly output of some eight tons of kosher meat. The facility is the leading producer of kosher meat and poultry products for much of the former Soviet Union.

“I’ve long been searching for a synthesis between that self-sacrifice which kept Judaism alive in those difficult years and this wealth of opportunities that we have t! oday,” he says.

Kogan says he found this synthesis in the Bronnaya Street project — adding a modern facility to an old synagogue.

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