(JTA) – Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, four Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union celebrated the opening of synagogues in an effort to boost cultural and spiritual activities for congregants, or commemorate Jewish heritage.
Of the new synagogues that were opened in recent weeks in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, the most unusual was the reopening, following extensive renovations, of a blue wooden structure that is the oldest known synagogue in Birobidzhan – a city which is the capital of an area established in 1934 by Joseph Stalin in Russia’s Far East on the border with China in a failed bid to compete with the Zionist project in pre-state Israel.
Established in 1986 amid the lifting of anti-religious policies in the former Soviet Union, the Beit Tshuva synagogue in Birobidzhan, capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, quickly fell into disrepair as Jews began leaving the area for Israel and the West following the breakup of the communist empire. Built on swampy soil that is exposed to extreme temperatures, it became a hazardous ruin.
Today, Jews account for less than five per cent of the 175,000 residents of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which is located 450 miles west of the Japanese coastline.
But the building received a new lease on life last year, when a local entrepreneur decided to fund its restoration, the news site DV Novosti reported last week. On Sept. 7, a few dozen locals, many of them non-Jews who had never seen a functioning synagogue before, attended the re-dedication ceremony, the news site reported.
Rabbi Eli Riss, a Chabad emissary who services the local Jewish community, blew the shofar in the renovated synagogue as locals observed.
Additionally, a new synagogue was inaugurated with money from the Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Leviev in the affluent Moscow suburb of Novye Veshki, located 10 miles north of the nearest synagogue. The diamond magnate attended the introduction of a Torah scroll into the small shul, which is tastefully decorated but has only 30 seats, the STMEGI group representing Russian-speaking Mountain Jews reprted earlier this month.
In Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine which used to be called Dnipropetrovsk, last week the local Jewish community – which is one of Ukraine’s strongest with thousands of members as well as schools, a matzah factory and a Torah scroll workshop – reopened the very first Jewish house of prayer ever built there.
Known as the Alteshul, or Old Synagogue, it was established in the late 19th century but its interior was ruined in the 1990s during renovations that were meant to salvage the structure from collapse. The interior was restored based on paintings of the synagogue’s interior and writings describing it.
In July, a historic synagogue that was originally built in 1823 was re-inaugurated in the city of Joniskis in northern Lithuania. Situated 140 miles north of the capital Vilnius, Joniskis’s population was nearly 50 per cent Jewish before the Holocaust, when 95 per cent of Lithuanian’s 225,000 were murdered. The city had three synagogues. Only two of them, the restored one, which is known as the White Synagogue, and the nearby Red Synagogue, remain standing today.
Currently no Jews live in Joniskis but members of the small Jewish community of Siauliai, a nearby city, attended the re-dedication ceremony in July, when the ambassador of the State of Israel in Lithuania, Amir Maimon, affixed a mezuzah to the renovated synagogue’s doorframe, the Jewish Community of Lithuania wrote in a report of the ceremony.