“If you put Google, Apple, and Microsoft together, it still doesn’t compare to the miracles of Jewish renaissance I have witnessed in this country,” I said to two reporters from The New York Times and Moscow Times.
I had just finished a talk at a Shabbos night meal for 35 English-speaking ex-pats in the Marina Roscha shul in Moscow, a seven-story tall Jewish center that features, among other things, a mikveh, library, swimming pool, fitness center, banquet hall, theatre and two restaurants (one milchig, one fleishig).
It was one of over twenty talks I gave in Russia during my visit there last month. This particular event was hosted by one of the more than ninety Chabad shluchim serving the Jewish people of Moscow. The hosts were Rivkie and Rabbi Yanky Klein. Yanky is the son of Rabbi Binyamin Klein, one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretaries, and a grandson of Rabbi Mordechai Shusterman, the Rebbe’s baal korei.
“My grandfather actually got married in the Marina Roscha shul over 70 years ago when the building was a dingy shack and a dangerous place to visit,” Rabbi Klein told the two reporters. “On the day of his wedding, ten Jews had to surreptitiously enter the building at intervals so that no KGB personnel or KGB informer would suspect a religious ritual taking place inside. The wedding was performed quickly and quietly.”
“I remember Mrs. Klein, Yanky’s mother,” I added, “telling me that her father, Yanky’s grandfather, the same Rabbi Shusterman, used to take a detour around the Kremlin just to avoid coming near that dreaded place.”
The Kremlin in his eyes was the symbol of communist oppression – an oppression that claimed the lives of countless Jews and which brutally repressed Jewish life, closing down shuls and chedarim and arresting Jews who dared keep Shabbos or refused to send their children to communist schools.
“Fast forward to 2012,” I told the two reporters. “Right now, you are at a joyous Shabbos dinner together with hundreds of people (there were over 400 that evening enjoying staggered meals in the various entertainment spaces of the Marina Roscha) being served a sumptuous meal. Is this not a miracle?”
During my entire stay in Russia I kept pinching myself. Could I really be in what used to be the Soviet Union? Next to the Marina Roscha shul is the Chesed Center, a gorgeous sleek-looking building. The center services 15,000 Jews. And when I say “service,” I don’t just mean food (though it does have a soup kitchen). This humanitarian center provides dental care, eye care, haircuts, manicures, Hebrew classes, art classes, wheelchairs, shoes, clothes, Bolshoi Ballet tickets, etc. All this with high-class trappings. No smell of bleach or peeling walls. Quite the opposite. It exuded the aroma of the cosmetics floor in any American department store. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t want to leave. An aside: In the basement is perhaps the largest kosher kitchen in the Russia, preparing all kosher airline meals coming out of the country as well as all the challahs sold in Moscow.
Next to that building is yet another miracle. It is the site of the future Russian-Jewish Museum of History and Tolerance Center – expected to be the biggest Jewish museum in the world when it’s completed (scheduled to open in November 2012). Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to open it and he provided a good portion of the funds for the building. A visit to the museum will be mandatory for all Russian schoolchildren in grades 4– 7.
Who could have imagined any of this just two decades ago? Can any of us who lived through the terrifying Cold War era not get goose bumps when seeing this transformation?
On the last day of my trip, I hired a cinematographer for a project I’m working on, walked to Red Square, and filmed a standup saying the following: “Lenin and Stalin, where are you with your failed philosophies and ideologies, and where in contrast are the Chabad chassidim who fought you in the 1920s and ‘30s to keep Judaism alive in your land?”
As I said these words, four policemen were standing by. Just twenty ago, these words – in Red Square no less! – would have landed me in jail.