Compared to other Jewish populations in Eastern Europe, the Jewish community of Sochi is a newbie, with its first synagogue barely more than a decade old.

Located on the coast of the Black Sea and boasting balmy weather (for Russia, at least), the area gained popularity during the Soviet era as a resort spot famous for its sanitariums, spas and retreats.

According to Chabad Rabbi Ari Edelkopf—the city’s first and only rabbi—Sochi attracted Jews for a different reason: its multiculturalism. Home to many ethnic Georgians, Armenians and people of other nationalities, it was a haven for Jewish men and women wishing to flee other areas of the Soviet Union where they were easily singled out as minority outsiders.

Nella Kretchmer is a community activist who came to the city in 1974 as a young bride. A native of Chernovitz, a city in Ukraine with a long and rich Jewish past, she grew up in a home where Yiddish was spoken, and Jewish rituals and customs were kept alive. This was despite the Soviet effort to quash Judaism.”

In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kretchmer and other Jews began gathering to celebrate holidays together on informal basis. The founding president of the community was the late Dr. Isaac Shvartzbord. With time, the community acquired a room to use as a center. Yet there was no religious instruction for children or adults, synagogue services or kosher products available.

When Edelkopf arrived with his wife Chani in 2001, they began working with Shvartzbord, Kretchmer and others to lay the infrastructure for what is now a thriving community of approximately 3,000 Jews.

After Shvartzbord passed away in 2005, Borislav Yegudin took over as president.

Providing a Jewish education to the younger generation is a focus of the community.
Providing a Jewish education to the younger generation is a focus of the community.

Living Jewish Lives

Today, the Jewish community center is housed in a centrally located three-story building that boasts a mikvah (ritual bath), synagogue, soup kitchen, classrooms for an early-childhood center and Hebrew school, and even a kosher store.

“Rabbi Edelkopf taught people to live Jewish lives,” explains Kretchmer in flowing Yiddish, “and now, many people shop at the kosher store and keep kosher homes. People grew up not knowing [about Judaism], but now they observe and participate with the greatest pleasure. Rebbetzin Chani works with the women, and together, they have made a Jewish life for us here.”

Edelkopf says that a good indicator of how much the community has progressed would be participation in his communal Passover seders. At its peak, as many as 400 people attended every year. Lately, that number has dropped to about half—maybe 180—largely due to the fact that people have gained the confidence and knowledge to run a seder at home with their own families.

Alex Feldman, a recent arrival, moved to the community from Brooklyn, N.Y., last fall. He was attracted to Sochi by the employment and investment opportunities in the city.

“The atmosphere at the community center is really great,” says Feldman, who met Edelkopf for the first time after overhearing the rabbi speaking in Hebrew in a public park.

“Everyone is very friendly and welcoming. The crowd at synagogue services is a really nice mix of people, and they all have so much respect for the rabbi.”

Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, center right, alongside Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, and Jewish community leaders.
Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, center right, alongside Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, and Jewish community leaders.

Edelkopf says the city’s hotels and spas have made it natural choice for conventions and trade shows, and many visiting business people and vacationers take advantage of the amenities that the community has to offer. However, preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics—where he plans to reach out to as many as 20,000 visitors at three different sites—has been both challenging and empowering for him and his staff.

In the last few years, as Russia raced to ready Sochi for the Olympic Games, Feldman says residents have suffered through power outages, loss of water and sewage services, and other inconveniences as the city’s crumbling infrastructure—much of which had not been repaired since the 1980s—is given a thorough overhaul and facelift.

“It is going to be good for us all when this finishes,” says Feldman. “There will be more tourists from Russia and abroad, and that spells positive economic activity for the entire community.”

Now living among new luxury resorts, railway stations, hotels and modern facilities worthy of Sochi’s moniker—“the pearl of the Russian Riviera”—Edelkopf notes that his job is to ensure that the spiritual side keeps up with the physical.

As such, when the excitement surrounding the Olympics guests has dimmed, the rabbi plans to start the construction of a 1,500-square-meter new community center, built on a plot of land donated by the government.

“This is a new era for our city,” he states, “and it is an electrifying time for our community as well.”