A crowd of 550 Jewish community members, businesspeople and government officials packed a Saratov, Russia, municipal hall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Volga River port’s Chabad-Lubavitch center.

The evening program – featuring speeches, a concert and performance by a Russian theater troupe – was officially dedicated to Rabbi Yaakov Meir and Leah Kubitshek, who arrived in 1997 to establish the center, but it was just as much a tribute to the growth of a community that bounced back from the ravages of Communist-era religious oppression.

“I don’t remember so many important people, from Jewish businesspeople, Jewish actors, Jewish VIPs, all coming together before,” said Alexander Lazarson, 62.

Lazarson, a professor of physics who grew up in Saratov and now serves as president of its 10,000-strong Jewish community, recounted the sea change in Jewish life witnessed in the city over the past decade.

“Before Rabbi Kubitshek came here, we had Jewish life, but it was hidden,” he explained. “Not many people knew about it, because we had a small synagogue, only old people came, and we hardly made a minyan.”

“On some Jewish holidays,” he continued, “young people also came, but not more than 60. But when the Kubitsheks came, they first opened the Ohr Avner Chabad Jewish Day School and kindergarten. The rabbi held services every day.”

Restoring Shul’s Former Glory

Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kubitshek, right, presents an award to a local leader of Saratov, Russia’s Jewish community.
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kubitshek, right, presents an award to a local leader of Saratov, Russia’s Jewish community.

The revolution was further energized a few years ago, recounted the professor, when Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union helped organize outside supporters so that the Saratov community could purchase the Great Choral Synagogue. Communist authorities had seized the historic shul back in 1937.

Today, an effort is underway to restore the 100-year-old synagogue to its former glory. The institution also was the site of a grand Torah dedication earlier this year.

At the anniversary celebration, the Kubitsheks handed out awards to 35 community members for their dedication to Jewish life, and their support of local projects, such as the synagogue restoration.

After the rabbi read a congratulatory letter penned by Lazar, the regional ministers of religion and culture, and the local Muslim community leader addressed the audience.

“The concert was very special,” said Leah Kubitshek. “In addition, actors from around the world came here to perform.”

After the concert, 12-year-old Sholom Dov Ber Kubitshek – the oldest of the couple’s seven children – danced on stage with his father.