I spent much of the week in Moscow, where — you may be surprised — a group of 40 Jews could walk down the street on a Friday night, many in yarmulkes, with nary a backward glance from anyone.
The story of modern Russian Jewry has two distinct narratives. One, widely known, speaks of the huge collective effort to free Soviet Jewry, culminating in a mass exodus in the 1990s to the United States and Israel, which UJA helped make possible. The other narrative, much less known, tells of the Jews who chose to stay behind. It reveals how over time, with the support of UJA and others, a determined younger generation found their way back to their Jewish identity, building a Jewish community at once familiar and new.
And so on my third trip to this historic city, I joined with a group of Jews from around the world to experience firsthand Jewish Moscow in 2019. At every turn, it was astonishing to realize how very far this community has come, considering the oppression of the not-so-distant past.
On Friday night, we were hosted by the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, at the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue, originally built in the 1880s, and now one of 32 Chabad synagogues in Moscow. The shul was shut down under Communist rule and converted into a theater; its rabbi was executed in 1937. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the synagogue was fully restored. Right under the carpet by the aron ha’kodesh (the Torah ark), a trap door was built in the original synagogue so that in the event of a pogrom, worshipers could escape. The trap door is still there.
On Shabbat morning, we attended services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, today a vibrant synagogue led by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. This was the only synagogue that the Soviets allowed to remain open during the Communist era — largely for show. Desperate Russian Jewish refuseniks would clandestinely meet with foreign Jewish visitors near its doors to receive a precious box of matzah or pair of tefillin.
I thought about that on Sunday morning as I put on my tefillin in a hotel room facing the Kremlin.
I thought about it, too, on Sunday evening when we had dinner at the Russian State Library, where the Red Army Choir performed. Among their repertoire: Adon Olam. In Hebrew. My great-grandfather fled the Russian army fearing for his life, and here the Red Army was serenading us with a Jewish prayer.
Truth be told, none of this should come as such a surprise. Through the work of our partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, we’ve been investing for decades in summer camps, grassroots programming, leadership development, and more, with the intention of re-igniting Jewish life from the ashes of Soviet Communism. With the help of many partners, we’ve helped build a proud, dynamic community that’s never given up on itself.
Moscow lifted me up, reminding me that what we do as a Jewish community can bring about real change, even in the most extreme circumstances. My great-grandfather could never have imagined how far we’ve come. And my hope is that our descendants will look back at this time, from a place of peace and security, with that same sense of wonder.