Lying at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third largest city and capital of the Sverdlovsk, Oblast region, sits on the western edge of Siberia. An industrial city famous for steel-making, Yekaterinburg was once off-limits to Jews, and today only 15,000—a tiny fraction of the city’s two million residents—are Jewish.
When Chabad-Lubavitch sent Rabbi Zelig and Chana Ashkenazi to settle in Yekaterinburg six years ago, they found not a single synagogue in place. Most local Jews trace their roots to Poland and other war-ravaged countries in Europe that they and their grandparents fled during the Holocaust, explains Rabbi Ashkenazi. “That’s where they left their homes, families, and very often, Judaism itself.”
But last week there was cause for celebration among members of the Jewish community as the frame of a 4,000×200 meter, four-story Jewish Community Center reached completion. A project of the local Jewish community, funded by a major grant from the Rohr Family Foundation, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, and a growing group of local Jewish community donors, the milestone marks the rapid growth of Jewish involvement and awareness here in so short a time span. Coming at an auspicious time, as residents prepare to celebrate the city’s bicentennial, the completion of this phase of the center was a historical moment for Jewish life in the region, and a joyous occasion for Yekaterinburg’s Jews, says Yaccov Mendelowitz, president of the local Jewish community.
Rabbi Ashkenazi, who now serves as Chief Rabbi of Yekaterinburg and the entire region, and is on the board of the local committee for religious affairs has worked vigorously with his wife, conducting a wide range of programs and activities, including humanitarian aid, holiday events, and weekly classes for the local community in rented facilities. In only six years, programs have expanded to include an Or Avner school, the only Jewish day school in Yekaterinburg, housed in a building of its own with 250 students currently enrolled, and plans for a neighboring playgroup and nursery school are underway. Shabbat services draw an average of one hundred people weekly, and attendance at holiday events has swelled, prompting the community to rent the largest available facility in town, with seating for three thousand. Even so, there weren’t enough seats at this year’s Purim concert.
The success of these events, notes Chana Ashkenazi, is not limited to the holiday seasons, but is representative of what is happening here on a day-to-day, individual level, in the lives of thousands of Jews. A poignant example of this was the recent ritual circumcision of an eight-day old boy– a first in the city’s recent history.
The new JCC is being built on the grounds of a synagogue that was destroyed in the 60s. The property was returned to the Jewish community last year, by Governor Eduard Rossel, in an outstanding gesture of restitution to the Jewish community. Speaking at a recent function the Governor discussed his anticipation of the new building, and recalled seeing Jews attending services on the same lot of land, decades ago.
In addition to the city’s first permanent synagogue, the center will include two ritual baths—a welcome addition to a city three hours away, by plane, from the nearest mikvah, especially as Jewish women increasingly commit to the laws of family purity. “The new building will encourage more and more families to increase their level of observance as it becomes easier to do so,” says the rabbi. The center will also host a whole range of recreational activities, including rooms designated for music classes, as well as sports facilities.
Although Yekaterinburg is of the more advanced cities in Russia, poverty is still prevalent in the area. A significant number of the city’s Jews are professionals, but meager government salaries make it hard even for them to make ends meet. A large kitchen and dining area will serve up kosher meals for over one thousand people daily. And people in need of medical services will find them free of charge at the center, where several rooms were designed for medical purposes.
Rabbi Ashkenazi expects the building will be completed by the end of the year. “With the new center in place we further expand our activities, and include every member of the community in a Jewish environment that is full of excitement and meaningful Jewish activity,” says Mrs. Ashkenazi.