By Tamar Runyan
History is in the making in Minsk. Following the opening of a spacious new building, an unprecedented number of Jewish residents attended synagogue services during the High Holidays. One week before Chanukah, they keep coming back.
"More than 1,800 Jews, many for the first time in their lives, came to pray," said Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shneor Deutsch, noting that two months ago, he needed to run four shifts of holiday services.
According to the French-born Deutsch, who serves as the city's chief rabbi, a couple of hundred people used to be the norm. But with the construction of what he believes to be the first synagogue built in Belarus since 1930 - a massive structure near a cluster of foreign embassies in the eastern European capital - no longer do locals feel cramped.
Israeli Ambassador Eddie Shapira stressed that the new Jewish center is for everyone.
"This is a center for all the Jews of Minsk," said Shapira. "It is a spiritual and cultural center, maybe even for all of Belarus."
Like the rest of the city, Shapira eagerly anticipates a grand opening celebration at the synagogue, which will include local and foreign dignitaries.
"It will be a celebration for all the Jews of Minsk," added the diplomat.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shneor Deutsch, the city's chief rabbi, presides over a Jewish communal gathering.
According to Basya Deutsch, who came to Minsk with her husband in 2005, the modern building is a draw for many Jews who would otherwise not feel comfortable in a synagogue.
"It is a nice building; everything is new," said the Jerusalem native. "People have a place that's theirs, a place where they want to be."
Deutsch, who serves as the Jewish studies principal at the local Chabad Ohr Avner day school and runs a local women's club, said that the expansion also allows more people to be involved in school activities. Already, the kindergarten class is scheduled to perform in front of the community, and for Chanukah, older children will set out from the center and hand out menorahs and food baskets to the city's elderly population.
"Now that we have a building, we have room," she said.
Built in the same location as the community's old synagogue, the new structure was built with funds from the Ohr Avner Foundation established by philanthropist Lev Leviev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union; Colel Chabad, directed by Rabbi Shalom Duchman; the Lauder Foundation, and philanthropist George Rohr. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and Ohr Avner director Rabbi Dovid Mondshine supervised the project. Final touches to the three-storey building will include a cultural center, library, study hall, restaurant, kosher store, gym and computer room. Future plans call for the construction of a Jewish ritual bath at the site.
"People feel pride in coming here," said Shneor Deutsch, whose community includes roughly 15,000 Jews. "They feel that it is their home, a place where they belong.
"It will have everything needed for Judaism," he added. "And it will serve Jews of all ages. Slowly, slowly, we are filling the building."