MOSCOW — As Ilanit Sorkin surveyed the hundreds gathered outside a Moscow synagogue last Sunday afternoon, July 25, the impact of the tragedy from which they had just been spared hit home.

Sorkin, who lives with her husband, Moshe, and 3-year old son, Aryeh, in a Moscow suburb, had invited some 200 of her friends and their children to celebrate Aryeh's first haircutting, or "opsherenish," at the Lubavitch Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue near Moscow's Pushkin Square.

It is an age-old Jewish custom to leave the hair of a boy grow till 3 years old at which time he is initiated in the Biblical commandment of leaving side-locks and other observances. His haircut on his third birthday is considered a very joyous occasion.

The Sorkins, who became Jewishly observant about three years ago through the efforts of Lubavitch in Moscow, chose the Bolshaya Bronnaya because of its cavernous rooms and majestic architecture. Constructed in 1880 by the Polakoff family, influential railroad barons and followers of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the synagogue currently houses daily prayer services, study programs, a hospital circumcision facility, a bookstore, and Lubavitch's soup kitchen and city-wide Meals-on-Wheels program.

Excited about the haircutting event and meticulous about each detail, Mrs. Sorkin left nothing to chance. This would, after all, be a first for her family and many of her friends who were not observant.

At 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, Sorkin and her brother, Evgeny Merman, who had traveled from Toronto, Canada, to take part in the event, went to the synagogue to make sure that everything was in order. They reviewed the menu and schedule with the caterer, double-checked that the balloons framed the synagogue's front door and lined the interior, and saw to it that Aryeh's new Tzitzit (ritual fringed garment) and yarmulke (head covering), were prepared.

Before leaving back home, she asked Yossi Kogan, the 12-year-old son of the synagogue's Rabbi Isaac ("Izzy") Kogan, to tidy the books inside the sanctuary before the guests arrived.

At home Ilanit Sorkin dressed Aryeh in his new outfit and took him to the hairdresser to make sure his long hair looked good for the last time before the cutting.

Then they drove back to the synagogue.

"When we got there [at about 2:30 PM]," Sorkin later related, "the street in front of the synagogue was closed off. People were standing around very quietly, and the atmosphere was very sad. I became very afraid."

Soon Ilanit Sorkin learned that as Yossi Kogan set about his task of putting back the books he discovered a bag tucked in the back of a bookshelf which he described as "very fishy, with whirring sounds coming from inside."

The boy alerted his father who quickly informed the authorities and carefully carried the suspicious package outside. (The synagogue is situated one mile away from the former KGB Headquarters, now the Federal Security Service building, in the center of Moscow.)

There were some15 people inside the synagogue building at the time.

After a sniffer dog confirmed that the package contained explosives, the entire street was immediately closed off.

As guests arrived, dressed for the ceremony, they joined the crowd of onlookers that was steadily growing behind the barricades. Evgeny Merman described the scene:

"The synagogue was decorated with 1,000 colorful balloons. People were all dressed up, and many were holding flowers and presents. Journalists started coming. Everyone was quiet, waiting. Many people were there with small children."

Police and bomb experts meanwhile worked to detonate the bomb, Merman said.

The Federal Security Service labored for close to an hour and a half to detonate the bomb outside the synagogue's gates. Finally they gave up and covered the bomb with a bulletproof vest.

"We waited there quietly until about a quarter to five," Sorkin said. "Then we heard a blast, and we were told that the bomb had been detonated."

Though no one was injured, windows in the synagogue and many neighboring buildings were shattered and the walls puckered by debris. The Russian ITAR- Tass news agency reported that the bomb contained the equivalent of 2.2 pounds of TNT.

Mrs. Sorkin said those gathered outside were visibly shaken when they heard the explosion, which reverberated more than a mile away, but the emotion quickly changed to relief that everyone had been miraculously spared.

"It was clear that something very terrible could have happened, G‑d forbid," said Sorkin. "When I looked around at these hundreds of people, and all the children, who came for my family's "simcha" (joyous event), I had a sense of what that would have meant.

"If Yossi had not been cleaning the books, this terrible thing could have happened as intended and we would not be speaking right now," Sorkin said.

Authorities prevented the crowd from entering the historic synagogue so they could investigate the bombing.

"Well, we had to decide what to do about our son's `opshernish,'" Sorkin said. "We thought of doing it on another day, but my little boy was excited for the birthday, and we didn't know if we could get all the people together again."

Moscow's kosher restaurant is not far from the synagogue and the owner, who had also done some of the catering, was a guest. He invited the party entourage to use his restaurant for the party.

"The police allowed us inside for a few minutes to take the food out," Merman said.

"Some people started going home," said Sorkin. "The tension was exhausting, and their children were tired. But the others, about 100 strong, went to the restaurant.

"We sang. We danced. The band played endlessly. And there were many, many toasts of `L'Chaim' - To Life, thanking G‑d for sparing us," said Sorkin, who notes that the party became increasingly joyful as the tension subsided and people realized "the blessing" of what had just happened.

For some the celebration continued all night. While the Russian and foreign press descended on the scene, the U.S. State Department geared up to issue a statement of condemnation, and the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities beefed up security outside synagogues throughout the country, the festivities moved to the Lubavitch Marina Roscha Synagogue where many sang and danced all night and thanked G‑d for His miracles.