Kazan, the capital of Russia’s Muslim-majority autonomous republic of Tatarstan, celebrated the 100th year anniversary of its grand central synagogue this week. In preparation for the milestone year, the synagogue’s historical interior sanctuary was restored and the building’s façade got a facelift.
Chief Rabbi and Chabad emissary to Kazan, Rabbi Yitzchok Gorelik, was appointed to Kazan nearly two decades ago to rebuild Jewish life there. Since then, Chabad has successfully established various religious and educational institutions. In 2007, the rabbi was awarded the prestigious “Kazan Medal” created by Russian President Vladimir Putin in honor of Kazan’s 1,000 year history and its citizens who’ve made noteworthy contributions to this city.
When it was part of the USSR, Kazan, a city of 1.4 million situated some 500 miles southeast of Moscow, was kinder to its Jews than most other parts of the former Soviet Union. Officially off-limits to Jews under the Tsarist regime, Kazan developed a thriving community at the end of the 19th century, when Jewish soldiers released from the Nikolayevsky Regiment and a limited number of merchants were allowed to settle in the area.
In 1915, the relatively prosperous Jewish community built a large synagogue in the center of the city, which the Soviets nationalized in 1929 and turned into a cultural center for teachers.
Tatarstan’s ethnic demographic made it possible for people of various nationalities and religions to co-exist peacefully even under communism. During the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish students barred from their hometown universities fled to Kazan where anti-Jewish quotas were more relaxed. Kazan authorities sometimes looked the other way when Jews celebrated minor Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah, or baked matzah in their homes.
Still, when former Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev handed the synagogue keys back to the Jewish community in 1996, there was nothing left of the synagogue of old except for the shell of the building. Over the last 20 years, the local community raised enough funds to renovate the building’s interior but lacked the funds to address its façade, decrepit after 70 years of non-use. With the generous government grant allocated by Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, the building’s exterior has been elegantly repaired.