Oldest Russia’s Far-East Synagogue Celebrates 100th Birthday

Vladivostok’s Beit Sima synagogue celebrated its 100th-anniversary last week. It is the only synagogue in Primorsky Krai region and the oldest functioning synagogue in all of Russia’s Far-East.

The synagogue was built in 1917 and was actively used by Vladivostok’s Jewish community until 1932, when it was “nationalized” by the Soviet regime. For the next 70 years, the building housed first a chocolate factory and then a confectionary store, retaining the candy smell, which gave it the nickname “Sweet Synagogue”. The new masters adapted the building to their own needs- built storage rooms and got rid of decorative Judaica symbols.

“This is one of the most beautiful synagogues in Russia. Any place can be a synagogue, but people say they feel a special spirituality when they pray here – the place where Jews prayed since the beginning of Jewish life in Vladivostok,” said the city’s Chief Rabbi Shimon Varakin in an interview to a Russian magazine, which did a feature article about the synagogue on the occasion.

In 2005, the government returned the synagogue to the city’s Jewish community in a thoroughly dilapidated and run-down condition. ‘When we first got here, the walls were all moldy. To hold an event in the prayer hall you had to first heat it up for two days straight. The roof leaked. If it was raining outside, it was raining inside, too,” Varakin reminisces.

With the help of a local sponsor, banker Vladimir Kogan, two-and-a-half year renovations began. Besides building a new, third level and strengthening the exterior walls, the works also focused on many of the details that made the synagogue unique: ironwork adorning the building’s windows for a century was restored along with the Stars of David, which were filed off during the chocolate factory tenure. Also restored were wooden decorative frames found on sealed windows and the ornament of the Covenant Tablets, discovered under wall plaster.

In 2015, the restored synagogue officially opened, the event attended by Russian Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. “Now, two years later, I see how the renovation of the synagogue changed overall community life,” says Varakin. “It’s hard to feel spiritually enlightened when you have no heating or running water. Now we feel proud of the synagogue, which also influences the community.”

In honor of the 100th anniversary, the synagogue welcomed everyone for a lively klezmer music concert by a well-known local band Dobranoch, and a festive supper. Every Thursday is an open-door day with guided tours for tourists and local residents.


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