In frozen Siberia, a small Jewish community is unthawed

On the day an ancient synagogue is returned to the Jews of Tomsk by the Russian government, the caretaker’s grandson reveals the Torah scroll his family kept secret for 90 years

Article and photos by YAAKOV SCHWARTZ | Times of Israel

TOMSK, Russia — As fish was eaten and toasts raised by the Jewish leadership of Tomsk, the quiet central Siberian city’s Jewish community chairman Baruch Ramatsky suddenly produced a small, ancient Torah scroll.

From the looks on the faces of Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, and Tomsk’s local rabbi, Levi Kaminetsky, this was not part of the planned celebrations heralding the return of a historical synagogue once appropriated by the Communist authorities.

Called the Cantonist Synagogue, the returned building is a rickety wooden structure — one of just a few of its kind still standing — that was built over 110 years ago by a group of veteran conscripts, or Cantonists, who were forced to serve over 25 years in the tsar’s army as child conscripts.

A small but dedicated number of Jewish Cantonists resisted systemic pressure to convert while enlisted. But ironically, they were shunned as “uncouth” by their community upon their return home decades later and were often segregated into a separate section in the back of the synagogue. In response, the Cantonists of Tomsk formed a congregation of their own.

Torah-wielding Ramatsky’s grandfather was the last caretaker of that synagogue before it was taken over by the Soviets in 1930.

“We’ve been safeguarding this Torah in my family for 90 years,” Ramatsky said. “And now it is time for it to come out of hiding.”

Together with the belated return of the Cantonist synagogue, the revelation of the existence of the scroll was an apt metaphor for the greater Russian-Jewish community, which even decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain is still cautiously emerging from its shell. And, like the Cantonists themselves, it was a unique symbol of resilience in the face of adversity.

On that subzero afternoon, members of Tomsk’s small but stalwart community danced with the Torah in front of the Cantonist synagogue after a ceremony in which the city’s mayor, Ivan Klyayn, symbolically handed over the building’s keys to Lazar.

From yesterday to tomorrow

While the Jews of Tomsk celebrated in front of the ancient wooden synagogue, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) southward some 160 young adults excitedly converged at the launch of an annual three-day long weekend aimed at fostering a sense of Jewish community and identity among a cohort in their late teens and early 20s.

The venue was a sprawling campus in the middle of the Siberian forest that impossibly gave off a sense of lushness, even from beneath a heavy blanket of snow and ice. The numerous dormitories that comfortably housed hundreds formed a circle around a main building. There, in addition to the administrative offices, was found a kosher cafeteria and an auditorium that was soon to double as a dance studio.

Part of the Russian Jewish community’s greater Yachad youth initiative which includes the Eurostars program, this group for young adults, called ZOOM, holds weekly activities across Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Like many parallel North American youth groups, it is divided into regions, where participants take turns gathering in different host cities. Tomsk falls into the sparsely populated Siberia region – geographically the largest by far.

“In Tomsk, there’s an assimilation rate of 99 percent,” said Kaminetsky, who accompanied The Times of Israel to the event. Kaminetsky also acts as the youth director for the local ZOOM branch.

“Most participants only have a Jewish mother [not father], and we’re reaching a point where the chances of them continuing their Judaism into the next generation are near zero,” Kaminetsky said.

“This program has been revolutionary for our community [in Tomsk],” said Kaminetsky.

“We started with nobody, now we have 40 young people participating on a regular basis. And they’re not just going to weekly classes – they’re giving out matzah on Passover, food parcels on Purim, they volunteer to help at community events. It’s really beautiful,” he said.

As snacks were served, friends laughed, introduced newcomers, and high-fived each other enthusiastically. A smattering of Hebrew could be heard among the Russian as participants discussed which of the wide assortment of activities and workshops they planned on attending.

Girls flipped their hair and boys puffed out their chests: In addition to providing Jewish education, the event serves as an active dating scene where singles can potentially find a Jewish significant other.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” said a 19-year-old attendee named Alex. “I rode on the train 14 hours to get here from Omsk.”

When asked whether that was the farthest branch from Tomsk, he laughed. “No, there are people from Irkutsk which is like 20 hours from here,” Alex said.

Kaminetsky says that the program is having multiple effects, including the rejuvenation of an aging community. He also says that some participants take on additional Jewish observance, but stresses that there is no predetermined religious outcome planned for group members.

“Some people add on a bit of Sabbath observance, some get circumcised, some marry Jewish, and some go to yeshiva,” Kaminetsky said. “But this is very much an individual matter. Every person does his or her own thing.”

A spiritual awakening

When a 23-year-old Kaminetsky and his wife Gitti first came to Tomsk from Israel in November 2004, the community was as fractured as it was small.

Located 15 kilometers (9 miles) southwest of the closed city of Seversk – the site of the Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises, reactors and facilities that produce and store nuclear warheads – Tomsk has gained a reputation for having some of the best universities in Siberia. And though many Jews arrived during the Communist era due to informal quotas on Jewish students in major cities such as Moscow, most of them quickly assimilated.

The rabbi estimates the Jewish population today to be around 4,000. When he first arrived 14 years ago, there were three buildings next to the decrepit main synagogue that functioned as additional places of worship — but each serviced only a handful of people. Divided as they were, none of them had enough people for a prayer quorum.

Kaminetsky’s first order of business was to sit them down and unite them under one roof.

“Their disagreements weren’t personal, and not overly ideological,” he said. “Everyone wanted to do his own thing, but there weren’t serious problems.”

Then, together, the newly-formed community set out to repair the synagogue. The building is now remodeled and restored, housing a small Hebrew school which serves the whole community, and a kosher kitchen.

Following the lead of Lazar, who offered Passover matzah to unaffiliated Moscovites in need of edible staples as much as anything else, Kaminetsky ran spots on local television stations advertising the free distribution of the bread of affliction. Eventually, he cobbled together a mailing list of about 2,000 Jews whom he says are regularly active.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “At one time, there were maybe 10 active community members, tops.”

Forty children attend a Jewish kindergarten, and another 100 participate in extracurricular education. An additional 80 participate in programs for teens and post-teens up to the age of 28.

Today, despite his upbringing in balmy Mediterranean Israel, the rabbi considers far-flung Tomsk to be his true home.

“When I visit Israel — I love Israel very much, but I feel like a guest,” said Kaminetsky. “I love it here [in Tomsk], the kids love it here. You can’t succeed at this job if you don’t love the place. And if you walk around all the time telling yourself that you live in exile, then you’ll start to feel that you actually live in exile.”

And though he feels at home in his remote locale, his sense of belonging is very much intertwined with his mission.

“Jews should be able to live wherever is comfortable for them,” Kaminetsky said. “And if they want to live in Tomsk, then they should have all the same infrastructure that a Jew would have in France or America. They should have a Jewish school, kosher food, a solid community surrounding them — that’s the goal. And it’s happening incrementally, but pretty quickly.”


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