The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FJC), Russia
March 2 2005

Jewish community of Astrakhan
Wednesday, March 2 2005



Astrakhan is a major city in southern European Russia, which lies on
the Volga River, close to where it empties into the Caspian Sea.
While Astrakhan's Kremlin dates back to the 1580s, the city was
likely settled under the Tatar dynasties of the 13th century. Ivan IV
conquered the city in 1556, thus opening the entire Volga River to
Russian traffic, and it became an important trade center.

Situated 1534 kilometers south-east of Moscow, the city spreads over
eleven islands, occupying 500 square kilometers. The country's main
waterway, the Volga River, flows through Astrakhan and connects it
with the Black Sea. The region borders on Kalmykia to the west,
Volgograd Region to the north and Kazakhstan to the east.

As a frontier city at Russia's southern gates, Astrakhan is situated
on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, making it a commercial and
transport center. Both a large river and seaport, it was an essential
stop on the Great Silk Way and played a key role connecting West and
East.

Today, the Astrakhan Region has large oil deposit and is also
occupied in the gas industry. Apart from this, the most important
economic branch is shipbuilding and ship maintenance to meet the
needs of fish, gas and oil industries, followed by the fish and
caviar industry and agriculture.

There are over 150 minorities and ethnic groups in Astrakhan and 14
different religious confessions. The total population as of the 2002
census is 502,800 people, of whom there are an estimated 3000 Jews.

Today, Chief Rabbi of Astrakhan Shlomo Zalman Goldenberg and
community Chairman Yuri Feldman head the local Jewish community.

Jewish History

The first signs of Jewish life in this region may be connected to an
epoch that left almost no evidence except for broken crockery and a
coin with the Magen David star, both of which were found about 14
kilometers from the city of Astrakhan. This is all that remains from
the city Itil, the capital of the Khazar Khanate, an empire that
which existed until the 16th century.

In 1791, Empress Catherine the Great granted permission to Jews to
reside in Astrakhan. The first Jews settled here in 1804 - two
members of the Davidov family, both merchants representing the
Chernorechensk Winery.

By 1835, there were 49 Jews residing in Astrakhan. None of them were
registered to a community and were basically occupied with their
craftsmanship. In that year, Tsar Nikolai I introduced the concept of
the 'Jewish pale' and excluded Astrakhan from the cities on this
list. His decree to evict all Jews from the city came in spite of
appeals from the Governor of Astrakhan Region, who argued that Jews
did not disturb the city's Russian population. Nevertheless, the
Governor did not defy orders given by the Minister of Finance, who
had taken control of the eviction process.

Upon retiring from the military, Cantonists came to live in Astrakhan
in 1827. None of them had converted to Christianity and kept their
faith. Eventually two rabbis, Rabbi Shraiber and Rabbi Schwarz, came
to Astrakhan to work with these Cantonists. Technically employed by
the military, these rabbis received salaries from the state treasury.
In 1862, the Cantonists received permission to summon their families
and even servants to join them in Astrakhan.

Among the local Jewish population were both Ashkenazi and Sephardi
Jews, both natives of the Caucasus region. The Jewish community
purchased a building for use as their first Synagogue. They also
started to construct a new building as a second Synagogue. By the
beginning of the 20th century, the city had two Synagogues: one
Ashkenazi, one Sephardi. The Ashkenazi Synagogue gave rise to the
so-called 'Craftsmen's" Synagogue'.

A Karaite Jewish community used to exist just north of the city, but
its members eventually left the Astrakhan Region.

In the early 19th century, there was also a large group of Gers.
These were Molokan Subbotniks (sectarian Bible-centered Christian
peasants who refused the Russian Orthodox Church and came to adopt
Jewish practices) who eventually converted to Judaism.

The Gers owned a mill and lived prosperously in comparison with most
of the local population. By 1880, there were about 800 native Jews in
the regions and about 2000 Gers. In 1905, Gers established a prayer
house and a mikvah.

Many Jews were employed in the fishery sector. Owners were interested
in hiring Jews, who "wouldn't dare drink alcohol and are able to push
off old stock", as quoted from one archival document. It is no wonder
that some enterprising and energetic Jews eventually became owners of
fishing companies. Many did this by entrusting other persons to act
on their behalf, since Jews had no legal right to own a business.

In the early 20th century, Astrakhan's fourth synagogue was built on
Gryaznaya Street. With the influx of refugees that came to Astrakhan
during World War One, the number of local Jews grew to 4000.

Many Jews were summoned to take part in the civil war, including
students of Astrakhan University's Medical Faculty, virtually all of
whom were Jewish. They all died in a battle near the village of
Granikh. One archival document indicates the Jewish community's
thanks to someone named Burdi, for having delivered the bodies of
those killed to a Jewish cemetery.

With the Communist revolution, the Craftsmen's Synagogue was the
first one to be closed, being converted for use as a library. At that
time, a Jewish communal farm was opened near Astrakhan.

Under the New Economic Policy, 1921-1925, the life of the Jewish
community was normalized for a short time, with weddings and other
religious services held in synagogues. It was not long, however,
until the Soviet authorities closed the Choral Synagogue, downgrading
it to a Jewish 'Club', which operated until 1941.

The Sephardi Synagogue only barely managed to survive such politics,
since Jewish leaders managed to convince authorities that young Jews
never visit the synagogue and that this practice would very soon
disappear altogether. Within it also survived 44 rare Torah scrolls,
one of which was a gift from the library of the Armenian Seminary,
dating back to Khazar epoch. Though the relics survived these
turbulent years of war and the Soviet regime, they were stolen from
the Synagogue in the 1990s.

In the late 1940s, many Gers suffered from the state repression and
their prayer house was closed in the 1950s. The Gers reside in the
village of Liman until this very day and sometimes visit the
Ashkenazi Synagogue. Despite their relative poverty, they always
bring gifts for the synagogue.

Since the city was not occupied by Nazi forces during World War Two,
Astrakhan once again experienced an influx of Jewish refugees.

In 1970, there was still a significant number of well-educated Jews,
who had completed studies at cheders and yeshivas. The minyan met on
a daily basis until 1972. The community operated a 'Chevra Kadisha'
Burial Society and the cemetery was in excellent condition. Financial
aid was available to Jewish families in need and the community ran a
huge library with some 2000 volumes.

Since the Soviet regime did not allow Jewish practice and observance,
Jewish traditions gradually died out. By the end of 1980s many
well-educated Jews had died and the community was close to
non-existent.

Jewish Community Today

The revival of Jewish community and religious life in Astrakhan began
in the 1990s. Just months after the opening of the reconstructed
Synagogue in April 2003, the community welcomed Rabbi Shlomo Zalman
Goldenberg, the first rabbi to serve the city in seventy years. Rabbi
Goldenberg works closely with Yuri Feldman, the Chairman of
Astrakhan's Jewish community, on all questions concerning the
community's development.

The local Jewish community celebrated it 200th anniversary in 2004.
There is a Jewish library available to community members. There are a
Jewish dance ensemble and the 'Sameach' Choir.

Local Jews play an active part in the community through involvement
in the Family Club, Women's Club, and the 'Golden Age' Club. These
clubs' activities are generally of a fun yet educational nature,
including lectures, interactive presentations and group discussions
on Jewish traditions and holidays, as well as festive meals.

Given the strong desire of many Jewish residents of Astrakhan to
raise their children in the Jewish spirit, community leaders have
been working towards the establishment of a new Jewish School and
Kindergarten. Their dream to open a Jewish Kindergarten was realized
in September 2004, and the next step is for the community to
establish a school.

Jewish leaders have requested the allocation of a building in the
city center for use as a Jewish school, kindergarten and community
center. Governor Guzhvin assured Jewish leaders of his support in
resolving the issue, and Mayor Igor Bezrukavnikov has also been
approached on the subject. Local leaders have also brought up the
question of transferring ownership of property previously owned by
the Jewish community.

Another priority issue for the Jewish community is the poor condition
of the Jewish cemetery, which existed undisturbed for 150 years,
until the first pogrom occurred in 1993. Since there are no security
guards to guarantee the safety of the cemetery, it has suffered from
five attacks over the past decade, all of them occurring on Hitler's
birthday or on Rosh Hashanah.

Regional authorities have promised support with respect to the
struggle against anti-Semitism in the region. Governor Guzhvin has
promised the Jewish community to strengthen the cemetery's security
during Jewish holidays to prevent vandals' attacks, while the City
Administration has been providing support with respect to the removal
of extremist graffiti and the abolition of anti-Semitic leaflets that
sometimes appear in the city.

The local Jewish community is recognized at all level as playing a
vital role in strengthening friendship and mutual understanding
between the different religions represented in the region.

Religion

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Goldberg is the spiritual leader of the Jewish
community in Astrakhan and Astrakhan Region. A native of Vilnius,
Lithuania, he graduated from the Moscow Rabbinical College. Upon
being appointed as a Chabad Lubavitch emissary, he and his wife Rivka
moved to Astrakhan in September 2003. He is supported by an ongoing
grant by the Rohr Family Foundation of New York, which also supports
hundreds of other Rabbis throughout the Former Soviet Union.

Rabbi Goldenberg oversees the operation the city's Synagogue and
community center and conducts all religious ceremonies in the region.
Together with the 'Chevra Kadisha' Burial Society, Rabbi Goldenberg
oversees the maintenance of the Jewish cemetery.

After decades of neglect, much of the synagogue building's decrepit
structure was devastated by a fire in 1996 and required a complete
overhaul. In addition to removing the Synagogue's brick facade and
preserving the original wooden walls, the Synagogue's reconstruction
involved the rebuilding of the ladies section and the installation of
modern sanitary facilities. Regular prayer services are now held and
the various clubs run by the Jewish community, as well as other local
Jewish organizations, use the building for their meetings.

Rabbi Goldenberg also leads services and prayers related to Jewish
holidays, as well as working with Yuri Feldman and lay leaders to
organize communal celebrations. The growing enthusiasm of local Jews
is attested to by the healthy turnout for holiday celebrations,
commemorative events, and community concerts. In March 2004, the
community celebrated the first Bar Mitzvah held here in decades.

As the Chief Rabbi of Astrakhan Region, Rabbi Goldenberg serves both
Jews of Astrakhan and surrounding communities. Through his
leadership, Jewish life is also developing in neighboring
communities, where many ethnic Jews have become estranged to Jewish
traditions, beliefs and holidays.

Through his work, Rabbi Goldenberg is providing local Jews with
greater exposure to Jewish traditions and beliefs. Apart from leading
regular community activities, he has promoted knowledge about Judaism
by appearing on local television to discuss such themes as Passover,
Kashrut, Shabbat, the Torah, and Jewish faith in general. He also
drew public attention to the development of the local Jewish
community and the condition of the Jewish cemetery.

Youth & Students

The Jewish community operates a Jewish Youth Club, which offers
teenagers and youth the opportunity to learn more about Jewish
culture and traditions, gain a contemporary outlook on Jewish
tradition, become more aware of their Jewish self-identity and learn
about what it means to be a Jew today. Club members also regularly
participate in all community celebrations, usually putting on skits
and other performances.

Club members also take part in various seminars, concerts,
competitions, and dance workshops involving youth from communities
within the Volga Region. In addition to giving them the opportunity
to meet like-minded friends, this and other community activities
involving youth demonstrate to participants and their peers that
Jewish heritage has a place in modern life.

Some of the more active youth also participate in summer educational
programs in Israel, such as 'Mekorot' and 'Birthright', as well as
follow-up activities for alumni.

While boys may pursue Jewish studies at a handful of institutions,
several local Jewish girls have undergone preparatory training and
are now studying at the 'Machon Chamesh-Chaya Mushka' Women's
University in Moscow.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress