A small man dressed in a black long coat and black hat is hurrying along Soviet Street in Babruisk. His destination point is the town’s only restored synagogue.
The man opens a heavy wooden door and enters the old building, exchanging “how-do-you-do”, handshakes and warm smiles with the people inside. He continues his way along a long and dimly lit clean corridor making brief stops in front of the opened doors, just enough to say a couple of greetings in a lightly accented Russian and perfect Hebrew to kids and their teachers who are having classes in the Hebrew language and the Jewish Studies.
The man quickly goes up the stairs leading to a second floor and navigates his way towards a small but brightly-lit and colorful room with a big and soft carpet in the middle. He comes up to four kids playing there and gently takes the smallest one up from the floor. The girl’s face lights up with joy and happiness and she hugs her father with all her might. Filled with love and energy the man leaves the room and goes downstairs to meet members of his tight-knit community. They have a lot of things to do together.
The man is Shaul Hababo. At 32 years old, he is the Chief Rabbi of Babruisk, a riverport town just a two-hour drive from the Belarusian capital Minsk.
When he was 18, the enterprising young Israeli came to Belarus as a trainee and immediately fell in love with Babruisk’s tranquil environment, its abundant Jewish heritage and history.
“I first came to Babruisk as an Assistant Rabbi and a mashgiach or kosher supervisor to ensure the kosher quality of food in the community,” Shaul recalls. “At that time I knew very little about Belarus and spoke not even a single word in Russian. All I knew was what my friends told me, that I will be working in a poor country. Someone even warned me that there is a shortage of toilet paper, which convinced me to take along a three-month supply of it.” He laughs.
After 2,5 years of servicing the Jewish community in Kiev, Shaul and his wife returned to Babruisk as a Chief Rabbi and with a strong intention to stay longer. “My grandfather, who was a historian, told me that there will be a huge burden of responsibilities on my shoulders, because Babruisk is a very special place for the Jews.” There, Shaul began to work with the local Jewish community and mayor to restore the local synagogue, built in the late 18th century.
The building was used as a synagogue and yeshiva until 1937 and has since been remodeled to be a military warehouse and later a tailor shop, which only contributed to the building’s further degradation.
In 2002 the synagogue’s empty shell was handed by the town’s administration back to the Jewish community. “The synagogue’s exterior looked well-preserved and decent,” Shaul says. “But the building’s interior was a total disaster: cracked walls with crumbling plaster, broken windows, no electricity and water. It was freezing cold inside in the wintertime and we kept our services short and candle-lit.” Today the rabbi is proud of the beauty of the building that has now been brought back to life.
Reviving centuries of identity
Out of 42 synagogues that once dominated the town’s landscape, Bobruisk synagogue, with its gorgeous undulating arches, is the only one that had any structure left.
The Jewish heritage of Belarus dates back to the 14th century when the rulers of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania welcomed Jews to settle in the country and open businesses. By 1897 all major Belarusian cities had large Jewish communities accounting for almost 15 percent of the country’s population.
In the late 1930s, however, the Jewish population across Belarus became subject to mass persecutions and forced migrations under Nazi Germany, resulting in its near-decimation. Babruisk’s Jewish population fell from 50,000 in 1926 to 1,300 in the late 1990s. Today, that figure is about 3,500.
In 2010 Shaul initiated and led a massive restoration, aiming to re-activate the only remaining synagogue in the town, which has been sitting dormant for almost eight years. The rabbi is personally engaged with all the renovations — he spends half of his income from his advertising business in Israel on the synagogue’s refurbishment and is proud of how his ideas are gradually becoming a reality.
It took around 30 local builders, architects and designers to restore the former beauty of the building. Restoration efforts only gained momentum in recent years and, despite the unfinished second floor, the synagogue is fully operational and hosts a preschool where small kids can explore a variety of knowledge and socialization opportunities. A spacious canteen serves kosher meals and drinks every day to those in need from Babruisk and the neighborhood.
The building has already become a beacon of faith, culture, education and innovation offering 600 people programmes in entrepreneurship and welfare volunteering, the Yiddish language, the Jewish culture and religion.
Faith meets an economic rebirth
In addition to being the spiritual leader for the synagogue’s 120 congregants, the charismatic Rabbi has big plans for turning the synagogue into a community platform, welcoming people of different cultures and faiths to come together to explore the multiplicity of heritages and cultures that shaped Babruisk’s vibrant past. Construction of an open-air museum adjacent to the synagogue received support from the local administration as it is in harmony with their plans to make the historic part of the town both attractive for visitors and a nice rest place for local residents.
“The ruins of the 19th century synagogue will be adapted for use as a Jewish museum as well as organizing events. The site will boast a number of relaxation areas and refreshment vendors, making for a truly unique place open to people of all faiths, ages and physical abilities,” explains Oleg Krasny, head of the local Jewish Community Council.
“We see this site not only as a way to safeguard Jewish heritage but also to fuel a local economic boom by attracting crowds of domestic and foreign travelers.”
Shaul’s vision is for the site is similar: to spark a series of long-awaited socio-economic opportunities for the local community. “Old Synagogue — Historic Museum” project has been named number two in the list of Babruisk’s key socio-economic achievements in 2018.
In the past year alone, Babruisk welcomed 10,000 visitors who have come to walk down the historic streets and to reconnect with the small town’s big heritage.
Now business is on the rise: 103 new businesses were launched in Barbuisk in 2018 and another 115 startups are scheduled to go live this year. “Currently there are 1,400 private enterprises and more than 5,000 individual entrepreneurs in the town,” says Olga Zhuk, deputy chairperson of the Town Council.
“We expect to create 1,290 new jobs for the local market in 2019. The major part of them will be in catering, sales and production.”
Next to the synagogue, a small market is being built. The project aims to preserve declining trades and promote local handicraft products. One stand will allow people to bring their own sunflower seeds and nuts to an old oil press machine and return home with a small amount of oil that they have pressed with their own hands.
In addition to generating jobs, these sites are expected to have a positive effect on local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, transport services and other tourism-related enterprises enabling them to expand.
Today Shaul is Babruisk’s Chief Rabbi, Chabad Emissary, interfaith activist, entrepreneur and a loving husband. His proudest role, however, is being the abba to his four kids.
“By integrating heritage into the contemporary economic environment we are respecting the past and investing in the future offering new economic, cultural and social opportunities for both local communities and visitors.”