The Jewish community of Omsk, in southwestern Siberia, was founded 150 years ago, largely by “Cantonists,” young Jews who had been forced into the Czarist army for 25-year terms of service as part of a larger 19th-century plan to assimilate the Jewish community into Russian culture.

Yet despite their years of isolation, vicious beatings and other forms of maltreatment, many of these young men still clung to their Jewish identities, and founded synagogues and benevolent societies in the military cities where they were discharged, including Omsk. The community was further bolstered by Jews who had been exiled to Siberia throughout the decades.

In 1854, the city’s first synagogue was built—the same synagogue that serves the community today.

Last week, two centuries after the first Cantonists were brought to the city, a new mikvah opened in Omsk. It is the first Jewish ritual bath to function there in a century or more, and its construction was community-funded, with more than 1,000 local residents contributing to the success of the project.

“The fact that the entire community participated is just as important as the new mikvah itself,” said Rabbi Osher Krichevsky, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Omsk.

A mikvah was surely built along with the synagogue, he noted, but was likely destroyed during the Communist era. Its remains have yet to be discovered. As such, the new mikvah, which took three years to complete, is functionally the first one officially on record for the city.

Alongside the mikvah opening, a cornerstone was placed to mark the beginning of a synagogue restoration project. Organizers say more than 150-year-old building needs to undergo major renovations, from the exterior to inside.

“The joint effort in completing the mikvah, together with the beginning of synagogue reconstruction, shows that the Jewish revival in Omsk is going full-speed ahead,” affirmed Krichevsky. “Building is easy. Impacting people’s souls is much harder, but what we see here shows that our community is growing and developing.”

Local and national dignitaries at the ceremony, including Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, right.
Local and national dignitaries at the ceremony, including Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, right.
The day also marked the start of significant renovation to the historic synagogue in Omsk.
The day also marked the start of significant renovation to the historic synagogue in Omsk.
Rabbi Lazar affixes the mezuzah at the mikvah entrance.
Rabbi Lazar affixes the mezuzah at the mikvah entrance.
Laying the cornerstone for an expanded Jewish community center.
Laying the cornerstone for an expanded Jewish community center.