In the Soviet Union at the time, Russian Jews were desperately trying to emigrate, despondent over the official anti-Semitism that kept them out of universities, turned them away from good jobs, insisted on their impoverishment. When freed by the collapse of the empire in 1991, they left in great droves for Israel, the United States and elsewhere.
“If once Jews were afraid to show their Jewishness,” said Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, “today they are proud.”
About 200 people assembled at a hotel just outside the Olympic gates Sunday. Jews from the city of Sochi joined Israeli delegates, embassy officials from Moscow and American visitors from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidism founded in Russia in 1775 and centered in the Smolensk region for 100 years. Now the leadership resides in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
“Today we will think of our brothers who died only because they were Jews,” said Lazar, a member of the movement who lives in Moscow. “Now, unfortunately, the whole world understands the threat of terrorism.”
Ari Edelkopf, a Chabad rabbi who grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Sochi a dozen years ago to nurture a Jewish community here, read the names of the dead. Lazar recited the kaddish, a prayer for the dead. Later, he talked of happiness, miracles even.
“The world has changed,” he said, watching as a Jewish man who had never worn tefillin — a box holding scripture and attached by a strap — felt it against his skin for the first time.
“Once, that would have gotten you sent to Siberia,” he said. “Now it takes you closer to God. We see small miracles every day.”
Israeli Olympians sat in the front row. Five of them are competing: Vladislav Bykanov, a short-track speedskater born in Ukraine who moved to Israel in 1994; figure skaters Evgeni Krasnopolski, born in Ukraine, and Andrea Davidovich, a native of Vermont, who train in Hackensack, N.J., along with Alexei Bychenko, another Ukrainian native; and Virgile Vandeput, a native of Belgium who skis in the giant slalom.
They were spectacularly serenaded. A Sochi youth group sang “Hava Nagila.” Tenor Telman Guzhevsky did the Israeli song “Jerusalem of Gold” and “O Sole Mio.” Then he sang “Go Shine the Flame,” composed especially for the Olympics by Andrey Leshukov, who accompanied him on the piano.
Sixteen-year-old Davidovich never stopped smiling. “I am honored and grateful,” she said, “to be greeted like this and to be part of this community.”
The Russian Jewish community is still trying to recover from past decimation. Lazar said that the Soviet Union was once home to as many as 3 million Jews. Today the Pew Research Center estimates that only 235,000 people identify as Jewish in Russia.
Lazar thinks there are more. “How many,” he said, “is the million-dollar question.”
Many don’t even know they are Jewish, he said, after years of previous generations trying to hide their religion by marrying non-Jews. Now, he said, Jewish life is returning to Russia. Twenty years ago the country had two synagogues, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he said. Now there are 100.
The Chabad-Lubavitchers have sent 4,000 couples to invigorate communities around the world. Edelkopf and his wife are among them. Sochi never had a synagogue, and when the couple arrived 12 years ago, they were told there were too few Jews to support one.
Now it has a Jewish community center with a synagogue, ritual bath, Hebrew school and kosher store.
“We’re planting Jewish roots,” Edelkopf said, “and helping people explore the past their grandparents lost.”
Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and human rights activists say minorities are under increasing threat. Lazar determinedly brushes off suggestions that such trends could encourage anti-Semitism.
Globalization, he asserts, has changed the dynamics. Russia and Israel are no longer enemies but political friends. Moscow has 10 flights a day to Israel, carrying about 2,000 passengers daily — many seeking vacation sunshine. Russian travelers, he said, return from those trips to Israel with one reaction: “Wow!”
The Sochi Olympics have provided a unifying moment, he said, offering Jews the opportunity to cheer loudly and openly for Jewish athletes. “We want to show we are proud to be Jewish,” he said, “so people around us will understand we are here to stay.”