Shalom Life | May 10, 2014

Russian Jews Pay Tribute to 1972 Games

Jewish members and officials assembled at the Sochi games to honour the fallen Israeli athletes who were murdered in Munich

By: Graham Sigurdson

Published: February 10th, 2014 in News » World

On Sunday, some 200 people assembled outside a hotel near the Olympic gates, including Jews from Sochi, delegates from Israel, embassy officials from Moscow, and American visitors from the Chabad - Lubavitch movement, the branch of Hasidism founded in Russia in 1775.

The group was assembled to commemorate the 1972 Munich massacre, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists from Black September. The incident introduced a level of fear that is still felt at Olympics today, perhaps lending to the recent coverage of threats regarding the Sochi games.

At the same time, in the Soviet Union, Russian Jews were faced with official avenues of anti-Semitism that saw them kept out of universities, jobs, and left them impoverished. With the USSR’s fall in 1991, there was a mass exodus to Israel, the U.S., and abroad.

Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief Rabbi noted that, “If once Jews were afraid to show their Jewishness, today they are proud.”

At the assembly outside the hotel, Lazar said that “Today we will think of our brothers who died only because they were Jews,” adding, “Now, unfortunately, the whole world understands the threat of terrorism.” As Lazar recited the kaddish, Ari Edelkopf, a Chabad rabbi who moved to Sochi to nurture a Jewish community there, read the names of the deceased.

Afterwards, Lazar spoke of happiness. “The world has changed,” he said as he watched a man wear a tefillin 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.”

The Jewish community in Russia is still in a state of recovery, both from the years of decimation during the time of the USSR, and even going back to the culture of pogroms. Lazar noted that the Soviet Union was home to nearly 3 million Jews. Currently, the Pew Research Center estimates that there 235,000 people in Russia that identify as Jewish.

Lazar noted that many do not know they are Jewish, touching on how previous generations tried to hide their faith through marriage to non-Jews. He noted how Jewish life is returning to the country, how twenty years ago there were two synagogues. Now, there are 100.

When Edelkopf arrived in Sochi 12 years ago, he said there were not enough Jews to support the building of a synagogue. Now, the city has a Jewish community center, synagogue, ritual bath, Hebrew school, and a kosher store. “We’re planting Jewish roots,” he said, “and helping people explore the past their grandparents lost."

Russia has seen a rise in Nationalism in recent years, with human rights activists noting that minorities are under increasing threats as a result. Lazar dismissed this, saying that he could not see how this would encourage anti-Semitism, and that globalization had changed the dynamics of the country. He spoke of how Russia and Israel are no longer enemies, but political friends.

Lazar noted that the Sochi Olympics have provided a unifying moment, allowing for Jews to cheer loudly for Jewish athletes. “We want to show we are proud to be Jewish. So people around us will understand we are here to stay.”

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