Amid the pandemic Russian Jews stay cautious, receive Shavuot packages

Since the fall of the Soviet regime, Jewish life in Russia has experienced an incredible revival.
By  ROSSELLA TERCATIN | The Jerusalem Post

When the coronavirus crisis started to deepen, the Jewish community of Irkutsk took the issue very seriously. Before any form of lockdown was required by the Russian authorities the community in the eastern Siberian city had closed the synagogue, the kindergarten, all clubs and suspended all in person activities. 

The decision seems to have paid off: over two months later nobody in the community has been infected, Dorit Wagner, who together with her husband Rabbi Aaron Wagner is the local emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic, explained to The Jerusalem Post.

“During this pandemic, we have been functioning on three different tracks of special initiatives,” she said. “We have been working on keeping people’s spirits up, for example by engaging several musicians, more or less famous to send special messages and songs to the community. We also call all the elderly, many of whom are at home by themselves, once or twice a week to chat.  

“For the material aspect, everyone who is in need of medicine, food and similar can turn to us. Regarding the spiritual aspect, we offer regular online classes and every week we distribute Shabbat packages, with challot, wine, candles, Jewish books, to allow to celebrate Shabbat properly in their own home.” 

Located not far from the vast and popular touristic attraction of Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is home to a Jewish population of a few thousand people. The Wagners are not the only ones offering the local Jews Shabbat packages: since the beginning of the pandemic, tens of thousands of boxes have been handed out all over the country, where at least 200,000 Jews live. 

Since the fall of the Soviet regime, Jewish life in Russia has experienced an incredible revival. In Moscow alone there are dozens of synagogues as well as kosher restaurants, schools and Jewish organizations of all kinds. 
With over 362,000 people infected with COVID-19, Russia is currently the third country in the world per number of cases after the US and Brazil, although the very low number of people who officially succumbed to the virus, fewer than 4,000, together with several denounces on lack of transparency in reporting cause of deaths have cast doubts on the accuracy of the official data.

Compared to the rest of the country, the Jewish community was quick to make the decision, after several people had gotten infected at a Purim party on March 8 at the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue, one of the most prominent in the capital. Within two weeks, everything was shut down, in what turned out to be an accurate anticipation of measures enacted by the authorities. 

Speaking at a recent event by Limmud FSU International, the branch of the educational Jewish organization Limmud devoted to Russian speaking communities, the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar highlighted the importance of solidarity within the Jewish community and outside of it. 

“People understand that others are thinking of them,” he said. “On the wider plane this finds expression through people – and countries – actually becoming friendlier. Arguments and disagreements from before the pandemic now seem to be really not that important. People are becoming softer.” 

The rabbi also urged people to try and use the crisis as an opportunity to learn and grow. “We are in quarantine; use it,” he pointed out. “If we don’t use it in some way, we will not be able to teach our children anything from it. We need to find out what is important for us; we need to ask ourselves how we can help others.” 

The Jewish communities are constantly in touch with each other. 

“Our community works under the umbrella of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which covers about 90% of the communities,” Wagner explained. “We are constantly in contact with one another and we are all taking the crisis very seriously. People have been listening because it is the message that all the rabbis and all the communities have been conveying.” 

A crucial question is also how the economic crisis parallel to the health emergency is going to affect the community in a country whose economy was already suffering from international sanctions. 

Wagner said that even if the authorities are looking into easing up the restrictions, they are going to be very careful in bringing back in-person activities. 

“We tell people that we might open things up again much later because there is nothing more important than protecting the lives of people,” she said. 

In the meantime, for Shavuot the community is going to deliver special packages to celebrate the holiday, which begins on Thursday at nightfall. 

“Moreover, even though we are not going to be able to be in the synagogue or to read from the Torah, we are asking people to all read the Ten Commandments in their homes at 12 on Friday,” the emissary explained, referring to the tradition of reading the Decalogue as the Torah portion for Shavuot. “Our aim is to keep the community united, we see that people miss going to the synagogue very much but we are trying to keep things as normal as possible and I think is working. G-d willing we will be able to get soon back to our community life.”

Photo: Shabbat packages preparation and distribution at the Jewish community of Irkutsk in Siberia, Russia, May 2020. (photo credit: THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF IRKUTSK)

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