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City of hope for Russian Muslims and Jews

by Russell Working

KAZAN, Russia — It was a time of turmoil in Russia’s Tatar Autonomous Republic. In 1994, local officials were demanding independence for the historically Muslim region, and taxpayer dollars were rebuilding mosques that had been converted to warehouses during Soviet times.

Fifteen Jews decided it was time to reassert their own spiritual heritage. They applied to the government and obtained title to a pre-Revolutionary synagogue that had been converted into a state-run teacher’s organization. And when the teachers refused to heed an eviction order, the Jews blockaded the building.

“Nobody was against giving us the synagogue, of course, but they were procrastinating,” said Mikhail Skoblionok, a 56-year-old businessman who was part of the protest. “So we decided to put pickets at the doors and not let the teachers in. . . . Of course it was a scandal, but otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten the building back.”

The synagogue now stands at the heart of a rebirth of Judaism in this part of a country that still struggles with a legacy of anti-Semitism. This is all the more remarkable given that a resurgence of Islam such as Tatarstan has seen tends to be accompanied by increased hatred for the Jews in many parts of the world. But despite a year-old arson attack on a Jewish school here, many of Kazan’s 10,000-12,000 Jews say they feel welcome in this Volga River city.

The synagogue is not only a house of worship, but it is home to the Hesed Moshe Jewish Community Welfare Center of Tatarstan, a charity that touches 3,000 people, said director Anna Smolina. Shut-ins receive hot lunches every day, doctors and nurses make house calls on the elderly, and volunteers buy food for the bedridden. Students crowd the building, and elderly women take singing and dancing classes. There is a hunger for Judaism here.

“Old people want to revive their traditions that they were forbidden to practice in Soviet times,” Smolina said. “Young people come because they long to find the traditions that they never had before.”

Across town, a Jewish school has excelled academically to the point that ethnic Russian and Tatar students are signing up for a program that includes Hebrew language studies and Jewish history.

Kazan is an industrial city with a population of 1.1 million that sits on the Volga River 700 km east of Moscow. Nowadays, slightly more than half of the population is Muslim Tatar, the government reports.

Russia has a long history of anti-Semitism, and outbreaks of vandalism and violence still occur regularly. Neo-Nazis have vandalized synagogues and attacked Jews and other minorities throughout the country.

In Tatarstan, anti-Semites targeted the 400-student Jewish School. Tatar extremists demanded the eviction of the school from the state-owned School No. 12 building, saying a Jewish school should not exist in a “Muslim part of town.” The hostility peaked last year when vandals poured gasoline on the roof and set it alight. All four floors of the school were water-damaged when firemen doused the blaze, said Olga Trupp, principal of School No. 12.

Trupp was stunned by the violence, but she is not particularly attached to the location in what is, after all, a Soviet school building. “If we’re not wanted, we can relocate, as long as they give us another building,” she said.

Despite this incident, many Jews say they feel accepted in Kazan. Ilya Velder, 21, part of the Hesed Moshe’s youth club, says that compared to other parts of Russia, anti-Semitism is minimal in Kazan. Velder files reports to a group that tracks anti-Semitic violence nationwide, and he is often at a loss about what to write. “I’m writing the boring reports to them, because we have nothing to tell them,” he says.

In order to promote interfaith understanding, the synagogue’s youth club has initiated exchanges with other religious groups, so that Muslims, Russian Orthodox believers and Jews can meet one another and visit each others’ houses of worship. “We’re still getting calls from other students saying, “When are we going to do that again?”‘ Velder said.

At a time when Islamic radicalism is on the rise in parts of the former Soviet Union, the Muslims of Tatarstan have a more tolerant attitude, many Jews here say. Damir Khairudinov, the head of Takbir Tatar Islamic Charitable Fund of Disabled People, agrees. “People of different religions don’t clash here,” he said. “God forbid, I hope we don’t have it.”

The Jewish School, too, has found ecumenical support despite the extremists. The school has a room full of new computers with Internet access, and most of its graduates go on to higher education. It is even teaching students the basics of a civil society in a country with little democratic heritage. Student representatives vote in a school Knesset on important issues such as whether teachers should wear name tags (the ayes had it) and what to call the school (“Our Family” won).

The synagogue’s rabbi, Itskhak Gorelik, is an Israeli-born Jew of Russian descent. His parents were Russian Jews who met in the Central Asian city of Tashkent in the Soviet Union, but they emigrated to Israel before he was born in 1974. But their son has headed the opposite direction. He and his wife responded to an invitation from Russia’s chief rabbi to come to Kazan.

“I was very interested in coming here,” Gorelik said, “so I gladly accepted his offer. It is remarkable that people here held their faith in their hearts for dozens of years (under communism). Their souls were burning, and they felt a hunger for the Jewish religion and traditions.”

Efforts like those of the synagogue and school seem to have taken hold. Jews here are taking pride in their heritage. And despite rising tensions in some parts of the country, Kazan’s Jews don’t hesitate to make known who they are.

“Ten years ago, nobody would say on a streetcar, ‘I’m a Jew,’ or speak Hebrew or anything like that,” Trupp said. “Nowadays, when they go in the city, our children are proud of being Jews. I think that’s the main thing we achieved. Jewish children are not afraid of being Jews.”