A Swedish writer, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, got a surprise when she travelled to Irkutsk, Siberia, for last year’s High Holy Days. For she found not only a thriving Jewish community – there are said to be 5,000 Jews in Irkutsk alone — but a well-attended synagogue with no external security, such as is now commonplace all over Europe.
And talking to the Chabad husband-and-wife team in Irkutsk, Aharon and Dorit Wagner, there were even more surprises. The couple reported that 19 adult males who had discovered their Jewish roots in the past year had asked to be circumcised.
In Siberia, temperatures plummet in the winter. But even Hernroth-Rothstein, accustomed to Stockholm weather, was surprised to hear Dorit speak about what it is like in Irkutsk on Shabbat in the winter.
She said: “On a winter Shabbat last year, it was minus 45 degrees, and I assumed the services would have to be cancelled because no human would brave that cold and go outside. I was wrong.
“The synagogue was packed, because no one wanted to be the person to cause the services to be cancelled, everyone wanted to do their bit. That is what this community is all about.”
The 140-year-old synagogue burned down on Tisha B’av in 2004, and was reopened in 2009. During the five-year restoration process, many old treasures were found in the rubble: pillars from the original structure that had been taken down and buried in concrete during the Communist era, along with tefillin and prayer books from the early 20th century.
The artefacts revealed not only hidden treasures but many of the struggles endured by Russian Jews – struggles that brought them to the far ends of the empire.
The building is now home to a synagogue, a nursery, library, youth hall, a large kitchen, and a cafeteria.
Hernroth-Rothstein’s book, Exile – Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, is due to be published early next year..