No dancing bears at Moscow synagogue this Purim

No dancing bears at Moscow synagogue this Purim

The use of a Holocaust memorial shul for a private bank party has sparked a scandal. But is the dispute also a power play by the disgruntled Orthodox community?

Rabbi Tanhoum Busin praying at Moscow's Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (Fili synagogue community)
Rabbi Tanhoum Busin praying at Moscow's Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (Fili synagogue community)

A synagogue located in the heart of the Russian capital. whose premises skirt picturesque Victory Park, is an idyllic venue for the private parties lucky enough to be given permission to use it. Most recently, Russia’s PIR Bank was allowed use to celebrate its 20th anniversary there by Evgeny (Benny) Briskin, the executive director of the synagogue’s custodians, the Russian Jewish Congress.

The event was held in true Russian style, complete with trained bears, a musical Gypsy dance troupe, tons of grilled meats — and considerable amounts of vodka. German band Modern Talking’s Thomas Anders entertained and the food was exquisite (although not kosher).

The problem? The synagogue is also the city’s Holocaust memorial.

“I’m not a religious person. However, having a band and this kind of entertainment at a synagogue, especially at a Holocaust memorial, seems to me outrageous,” said Mark Levinsky, an IT specialist in Moscow.

The head of the Moscow Orthodox Jewish Union, Rabbi Tanhoum Abraham Busin, said he was appalled by what he castigated as a “dance on the bones of victims of the Holocaust.

“It’s hard for me to believe that something like this could take place. This synagogue was financed by tzedaka [charity] money, and even if it’s legally owned by somebody, it doesn’t mean that they can turn it into a banquet hall,” he said.

But Busin has an additional axe to grind with the synagogue’s custodians: His community is granted very limited rights to worship there. And, lacking in funds to rent a different space, the community is forced to hold services in Busin’s small two-bedroom apartment while the synagogue stands empty.

Moscow's Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (Fili synagogue community)
Moscow’s Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (Fili synagogue community)

“On Shabbat, people travel to our domestic synagogue by foot from different regions of Moscow. So when they were passing by the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue, they saw some preparation for the party. It was obvious that something unusual was going on there. The next day we sent somebody to find out what it was and we were astonished to hear about the bank corporative,” said the rabbi.

A complicated ownership

The Holocaust Memorial Synagogue is owned by the Russian Jewish Congress, the largest secular Jewish organization in Russia, which is headed today by Yuri Kanner. Since its initiation, the RJC has been headed by famous Russian-Jewish oligarchs such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Leonid Nevzlin. PIR Bank is one of the main sponsors of the Congress, a nonprofit charitable fund and, as such, was not asked to pay for its use of the synagogue.

The Holocaust Memorial Synagogue was launched at 1998 — when Gusinsky was president — and was registered as a property of the RJC without any specific purpose.

Today, the center hosts a Russian Jewry study center and a Holocaust museum, with hundreds of photo exhibits from Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other concentration camps. Groups come there from all across Russia to learn about Russian Jewish history and the Holocaust. On the grounds is also a carefully designed and functioning prayer hall, complete with an Aron Kodesh, which houses precious Torah scrolls.

The synagogue is largely unused by Russia’s Jewish communities; in fact, due to its location within Moscow, it is difficult for Orthodox Jews to reach on Shabbat. The city’s small Reform community does occasionally hold Shabbat day services there, but the RJC does not want any one denomination to claim dominion.

“It is located in Victory Park, which is not a very convenient location for a person who needs to come on foot from the subway — and therefore there are no permanent communities. But, occasionally, people do pray there, and prayer services are usually held there on the holidays,” said the RJC’s Briskin.

On Purim, for example, as in previous years, Busin’s community will have use of the synagogue for prayer and the traditional reading of Megillat Esther.

“We asked for permission to pray at the synagogue during Purim, to read the Megilla and to have a festive meal there, including the shalahmones [in Hebrew — mishloah manot]. We were notified that we can conduct a prayer service there, but we will not be able to do anything else, in particular the festive meal that we had hoped to host for the members of the community,” said Busin.

“Why should a Jewish community need permission to pray at a synagogue? And what is the reason for all these restrictions, considering that the PIR Bank was allowed to have a non-kosher event there?” Busin questioned.

Sacred space versus sacred time

During the bank party, the Holocaust exhibits were covered by white cloths and special banners — to divide the “synagogue” space from the “party” space — the Russian press reported last month.

The story scandalized not only the Jewish community, but also many Russians who openly criticized the use of a sacred space for such an overtly commercial purpose. One of Russia’s federal television channels held a survey, asking whether it would be possible to arrange a corporate party in one of Moscow’s museums or churches. The Tretyakovka Gallery, as well as all the churches mentioned in the story, sharply declined.

The heads of the Russian Jewish Congress, however, do not think that they have made a judgment mistake. Executive director Briskin told The Times of Israel that, over the years, many events have been held in the synagogue. However, this is the first time the matter has caught the public’s attention.

The brit of Rabbi Tanhoum Busin's son, held at Moscow's Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (Fili synagogue community)
The brit milah of Rabbi Tanhoum Busin’s son was held at Moscow’s Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. (photo credit: Fili synagogue community)

“The PIR Bank is our sponsor and friend. And when they asked us about holding the event at the synagogue, it didn’t seem strange to us. Those who say that there is no room for events and banquets in the synagogue are not aware of Jewish history and traditions, for the synagogue is not a sacred place,” Briskin explained.

“We understand that somebody is not happy with our activity and is actually attempting to undermine us. We’ve become an important factor in Russian Jewish life… and someone out there doesn’t like it. In Moscow, there are many religious communities that would like to take over our synagogue, but we cannot — and will not — allow it,” continued Briskin.

But Rabbi Busin yearns for past years, when his community had free run of the synagogue.

“When Vladimir Gusinsky built this synagogue, he registered it as RJC property, solely because he didn’t want to affiliate it with any religious body. But at that time, we could pray there. I performed a brit milah for my sons in that building… Today, under the current president, Yuri Kanner, our community is practically banned,” lamented Busin.

“I assure you that we will not stop our struggle until the Jews are able to freely use this synagogue as it should be,” Busin asserted.

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