Synagogue Get Second Wind

After a Century of Serving as a Bakery


April 10, 2003

In 1908, when Hana Shnir was three years old, the Jewish community of Kuibyshev, Russia celebrated the construction of a grand community synagogue. Every Shabbat, as Hana walked with her father to Shabbat services, he would tell her about this special structure, built with the sweat and tears of a struggling community. It was a source of great pride for the community, Hana recalls, and it was a time when Jewish life in Kuibyshev was alive and well.

Ninety five years later a massive restoration project is underway to restore the Choral Synagogue of Kuibyshev, now known as Samara, to its former glory, and but for century of turmoil in between, Judaism in Samara is alive and well.

In 1917, the Communist Party came to power, shutting down the Choral Synagogue only nine short years after its opening. The premises confiscated, the synagogue was transformed into a bread factory. For seventy long years, Shnir and the Jewish community watched as the interior of the building was slowly destroyed by the heat from the massive ovens, and the Yiddishkeit that had kept the Jewish community for so many years was systematically destroyed by the communist regime.

Then communism fell apart and Konstantin Titov became governor of the Samara region, now a major city in newly formed Russia. Shnir recalled how, one day in 1999, her son Shmuel informed her that Titov was returning the synagogue to the Jewish community. "I didn't believe it," she said. Though the synagogue was in serious disrepair, and continued to house the bread factory, there was yet hope. And even more surprising to Shnir were other developments in Samara. With the arrival of Rabbi Shlomo and Dina Deutsch, a Jewish revival began among Samara's Jews, deprived over three generations of a Jewish education. It wasn't long before Shmuel's daughter, Dina Shnir, became an active participant in the programs and services of the new Jewish community.

Hana Shnir died several months ago at the age of 98, but the story doesn't end there. Last week, several dozen of New York's Jewish leaders listened attentively to her memories and her hopes for the future, conveyed in a letter written by her son Shmuel Shnir, a leading member of the campaign for the restoration of the Choral Synagogue in Samara. They had come together to meet with Governor Titov, who was on a state trip to Washington and New York. Titov, since his appointment as governor twelve years ago, has been "a steadfast source of support and devoted friend of Jewish activities in Samara," according to Shlomo Deutsch, Chief Rabbi of the region. Actively involved with the Choral Synagogue and Samara's Jewish community, Titov’s assistance has "facilitated the enhancement of Jewish life in Samara, immeasurably," says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters.

The meeting, held in the offices of Mr. George Rohr, a primary supporter of Jewish life in Russia, was attended by Jewish leaders representing the entire spectrum of American Jewish life. Greetings were delivered by Mr. Rohr, followed by words from Rabbi Arthur Schneir of the Park East Synagogue; Mr. Malcolm Hoenline, Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents; Mr. Jerry Hochbaum of the Memorial Foundation of Jewish Culture, and Rabbi David Hill of NCSJ. The challenges facing the Samara Jewish community in their efforts to restore the synagogue, and key issues facing Jewish life in Russia and America, were discussed, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, who coordinated the meeting. "Jewish leaders in New York were eager to pay their respects to a man who has proven to be a good friend to the Jewish community, and extremely dedicated to preserving religious freedom in his region," he said.

The Choral Synagogue of Samara dominated the meeting. Empty now of the bread factory, the Samaran Jewish community has worked for years to lay the groundwork for the synagogue's restoration, a huge project that will cost 1.5 to two million dollars, says Mr. Roman Beygel, President of the Jewish Community of Samara and a leading local businessman at the forefront of the campaign for the synagogue. Architects who worked on the Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg have recently completed the plans for the building, and Titov urged American Jewish leaders to join the effort for its restoration. Beygel, who was present at the meeting, spoke of Samara’s efforts at local fundraising that have resulted in 40% of the Jewish community’s budget being raised locally. Though outside help is still essential, the future of a Jewish community that can support itself “looks very bright,” he said.

Construction on the Choral Synagogue is slated to begin in the summer, and when completed, the synagogue will house all the programs and services of the Jewish Community Center, under the direction of Rabbi Deutsch and his wife, Dina, including a soup kitchen that feeds over 100 daily, a library, youth and women's clubs, and a full sports center and computer center, in addition to a grand sanctuary. The Jewish Community Center of Samara, serving the city's 15,000 Jews, also operates a recently opened Or Avner-Chabad day school and kindergarten, and large summer camps for Jewish children.

"The job ahead of us is a difficult one, considering the building's present state," wrote Shmuel Shnir in his letter that was read at the meeting. "But we are determined. Besides the importance and necessity of a Jewish Community Center [and synagogue], our JCC has yet another dimension. For the Jews of Samara, this building is not just building. It's rebuilding and restoring. For the Jews of Samara, this building is a dream and its restoration is a dream come true... [in it] beautiful memories will come alive in our future, connecting grandfather to grandson with the performance of the same sacred Mitzvos in the same sacred place. The Jewish Community in Samara will come alive and flourish, and that is definite!"

His mother would be proud.

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