The Jewish community of Irkutsk celebrated its 200th anniversary earlier this week. Over 600 people attended the celebration events, which were symbolically divided into ‘the Past’, ‘the Present’, and ‘the Future’ categories and took place over two days.
Located deep in Siberia, Irkutsk has a rich Jewish history dating back to the 18th century: some Jews arrived there as traders on the lucrative silk road to China and Mongolia, other were sent as cantonists by the Tzarist army. The exact day of the community’s anniversary, however, was established only recently after a few curious discoveries came to light.
“The date marks 200 hundred years since the first Jew in Irkutsk, whose name was Israel Fershter wanted to gather a minyan [ten grown Jewish men] for prayer services. And the reason we know this is because about a year ago we found a calendar of the Irkutsk Jewish community from 1918, which described the events and stated the exact date of the first minyan in the city,” said Mrs. Dorit Wagner, the wife of the chief city rabbi Benyamin Wagner.
Since then, the date – October 22nd- was officially established as the community’s birthday. The community made a lot of efforts to properly mark the anniversary, with three large events this week, celebrating the community’s past, present and future.
“To mark the past we renovated Irkutsk’s historical Jewish cemetery, turning its entrance into a memorial park and taking care of the overall up-keeping. For the present, a central event at the local drama theater was held. And a modern loft-style youth center was opened on the third floor of our community center to mark the future,” Mrs. Wagner said.
Over 600 people, including city mayor and regional officials, community members and guests attended the central event, which featured a locally-made documentary on the community’s fascinating history, a Yiddish play and the celebration ceremony. The community also made a book about the community, which was distributed at the event.
“I think one of the most important parts of the celebration was that it made the local Jews proud of who they are and it lifted their sense of Jewish identity, which is very valuable,” Mrs. Wagner said.