Members of Irkutsk, Russia’s central Jewish community spent the first Shabbat since the reopening of their 130-year-old synagogue in a state of disbelief. According to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Aharon Wagner, the Siberian city’s chief rabbi, the community has come a long way since a 2004 fire destroyed almost all of the historic shul.

“The community didn’t believe that the synagogue would be rebuilt,” said Wagner. “It was like a dream.”

Now housing a nursery, computer room, library, youth hall and a large kitchen and cafeteria to accommodate the many tourists looking for kosher food, the 2,000-square-meter building also provides a home to the local offices of the Jewish Agency.

A March 24 dedication ceremony presided over by Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar drew to a close a four-year effort to restore the synagogue to its former glory. Lazar affixed a mezuzah to the building’s main entrance.

“With G‑d’s help, we managed to recover that which was so painstakingly created by our ancestors and that which was once destroyed by fire,” he said. “I thank everyone who helped us in this important endeavor. The restoration of the Irkutsk Synagogue is absolute proof that Jews here feel comfortable and feel respect for their religion.”

The restoration comes at a time of tremendous growth in Jewish services in Irkutsk. Aharon and Dorit Wagner arrived as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in 2003 with a mission to help guide the revival of a 5,000-strong community. Last year, the community celebrated the dedication of two new Torah scroools.

Children play in the new classrooms added as part of the renovation of Irkutsk, Russia’s historic central synagogue.
Children play in the new classrooms added as part of the renovation of Irkutsk, Russia’s historic central synagogue.

The communal preschool, run by Dorit Wagner, just opened two classes for 21 children as young as three years old. In addition to Jewish subjects, the children learn math, Russian and Hebrew.

In addition, a club for the elderly offers couches, newspapers, a television, coffee and tea. The idea is to have a comfortable place to socialize and relax, explained Aharon Wagner, “so they don’t feel alone.”

The rabbi said that the first Shabbat was “very emotional.” Double the usual attendance showed up for services, which featured a newly-opened seating gallery on the second floor.

“For the first time in about 80 years,” he noted, “the balcony was used by the women.”