Opinion – The Shul That Rose From the Ashes

A suburb outside Moscow is home to a rich Jewish history—and a future too.

By Josh Nass | WSJ

About 12 miles southeast of Moscow lies Malakhovka, a suburb surrounded by pine groves. This sleepy town holds some historic importance for Russian Jews, but what’s happening there today also says a lot about a long-persecuted community’s future.

Almost 100 years ago, the villagers of Malakhovka built a synagogue, a one-story wooden structure with 300 seats. Decades later, trespassers would routinely throw stones at the building, deface the altar and desecrate graves in its cemetery. In 1959—during Rosh Hashanah, the holiday celebrating the Jewish New Year—Russian anti-Semites started a fire in the synagogue. It survived, but in 2005 another fire burned down much of the building. At the time the Jewish population in Malakhovka had dwindled to about 400 from 3,000 in the ’50s. The community suspected, but couldn’t prove, that anti-Semitism motivated the most recent fire.

My grandfather lived in Malakhovka in the 1960s and ’70s. Although the communists running Russia suppressed religious practice, he still managed to attend the synagogue. His mother, father and uncle lay buried in the cemetery adjoining it.

I grew up close to my grandfather, but I knew none of this until less than a year ago. We spoke at least once a day—about politics, Israel and Jewish survival. Even though I was born in the U.S. and raised speaking English, I always called him dedushka, grandpa in Russian. But he never mentioned Russia to me, much less why he left his homeland. I knew almost nothing about his family history—nor, sorry to say, was I.

But I began to explore his past after he died at 85 in 2013. He had fled Russia for Israel in 1972, leaving behind everything except his wife, children, brothers and uncles. Later he migrated to the U.S. and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. Speaking only Yiddish, he took the first job he could land. His most ardent wish was for his three children to be raised with a Jewish education and values—something impossible in Russia.

He eventually lived to see his hopes fulfilled. All of the next generations in our family received a Jewish education. My grandfather sent my mother and her brother to Yeshiva University. Today all eight of his great-grandchildren attend Jewish day schools.

As I saw friends lose loved ones to the pandemic, I felt the need to dig even deeper into my family history. In the course of my research, I learned more about Malakhovka and my family’s connection to the Jewish community there. I also learned that in 2010 a Moscow businessman financed construction of a new synagogue—complete with mikvah, community center, dining hall and chess club. But the new synagogue had only one Torah, even though every synagogue requires two to fulfill its religious duties. The second Torah had been ruled pasul, or invalid, possibly the result of an error involving only a single letter in its otherwise meticulous transcription.

I recently donated a new Torah—a handwritten account, on a parchment scroll, of the five books of Moses—to the shul where my grandfather and his parents once worshiped and an uncle even had his bar mitzvah. When the congregation held a ceremony to welcome the Torah, my family joined the proceedings on Zoom from Canada, Luxembourg, Israel and across the U.S.

We were there to honor a man who had fled Russia to pursue religious freedom in America, but what came next surprised us. We learned that my grandfather’s brother’s grandson prays in that very shul to this day, extending a continuum for our family that stretches back almost a century. As we prayed together before the sacred written word of God, a prominent American rabbi remarked that seeing Jews openly celebrating Judaism in Russia was a breakthrough once considered unthinkable within his lifetime.

This little shul, literally risen from the ashes as a symbol of Jewish perseverance, holds a minyan, or quorum, three times a day. Jewish children learn Torah there. In that new Torah, then—and in the hearts of family and friends—my dear grandfather lives on. The next generation of Jews in Malakhovka will be responsible for carrying the torch our grandparents passed down to us. Only then can the Jewish spirit that he and this town represent truly be replenished for the ages.

Mr. Nass is an attorney and government-relations strategist in Charleston, S.C.

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