HomeNovember 2013Simchat Torah in Moscow

Simchat Torah in Moscow

On Simchat Torah night at 3 a.m., the boisterous dancing of a hundred Jews on the street in front of the Marina Roscha Synagogue in Moscow reached a feverish pitch.  The circles whirled around and around, and the Torah Scrolls perched on the shoulders of the dancers.  There were Chassidim and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic.  Their spirits were high from a marathon of celebrating.  Suddenly a police car approached the deserted street that weaves between towering buildings.  But there was no fear.  This wasn’t Moscow of the Communist times when Jews gathered in apartments, removed their shoes and danced in their socks so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear the celebration.  It’s 2013, and there is no sense of anxiety.  As the crowd parted for a moment to allow the patrol car to snake through the dancers, the police burst into smiles, they too touched by the spirit of the holiday.
The celebration had started eight hours earlier.  As the crowds converged on the Jewish community center, young college students greeted them.  This is the new Jewish community of Russia.  The small core of Jews that held steadfast to tradition during communist time have either passed on or emigrated abroad.  Today young people fill the synagogues along with the nouveau riche.  That night over a dozen billionaires danced in the synagogue with a thousand others as their bodyguards congregated on the street below waiting for their charges.  Russian oligarchs swung in circles with Chassidim and college students.  Jews from the remote regions of the Azerbaijan who had migrated westward were with the attorneys and doctors from Moscow.  A dynamic new Jewish world is evolving in Moscow.
At the center of the concentric circles was Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar.  Italian born, full of Chassidic vigor, he is as comfortable with an old Russian babushka as a billionaire.  A confidante of Russia’s President Putin, he has inspired Russian Jews with a new vision that has led to a rebirth of Jewish life in the FSU.  He led the celebration through the night.  At 4 a.m., as we walked home, he told me of the great success of the evening.  His excitement was about those he had succeeded in prodding towards more observance, telling me, “Tonight three men agreed to a do a brit (circumcision) and four agreed to start putting on Tefillin daily.”
The Russian Jewish elite who made their pilgrimage to the Simchat Torah celebration were recalling the tradition of thirty years ago.  Jews would congregate outside synagogues once a year with a nostalgic connection to the tradition of the past.  Today these same oligarchs are propelling Jewish destiny forward in the FSU – investing their newly found dollars in synagogues and schools, building a Jewish community of their own making.
Other communities in Europe have a sense of anxiety about their future, worried about growing anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel.  Russian Jews feel very different.  There is newly found optimism in Russia about Jewish life, more reflective of the American experience than the European one.  Russian Jews are maturing into their own community, detaching themselves of the largesse of their American brothers to seize control of their community and chart their own unique course.  Simchat Torah in Russia is not anymore about Jews yearning for connection to the past.  It’s about a community claiming its own future.

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