Beliefnet
MOSCOW (RNS)--Long lines, once a caricatured staple of Russianexistence, are largely a thing of the past in today's free-marketMoscow.

But in the unusually warm days leading up to this year's Passover,residents of one Moscow neighborhood have been treated to the nostalgicsight of a jovial, sometimes jostling line of people queuing for matzah--subsidized matzah.

"The demand for matzah is a good indicator of Jewish life," saidMordechai Weisberg, 28, the Israeli citizen in charge of distributing200 tons of the unleavened bread at the Maryina Roshcha Synagogue, up from 150 tons last year.

Weisberg said the synagogue, one of five in Moscow, has a computerdatabase of 80,000 area Jews it serves in this city of 10 million. Matzahconsumption on the first night of Passover, which marks ancient Israel'sfreedom from Egyptian slavery, is an important first step for Russia'soverwhelmingly secular Jews, he said.

"I'd say that 99 percent of those 80,000 people are not religious,but this is the one thing they can do," said Weisberg, a bearlike manwho is a member of the strictly observant, Brooklyn-based ChabadLubavitch. "They don't keep the laws, they don't live the life, butwhat are we going to do, drive them out? No, we'll wait."

Despite Lubavitch subsidies that shave off about one-third of theprice of the Israeli-made matzah, each colorful box costs 35 rubles, about $1.23, or enough to buy seven loaves of locally made bread. The boom inmatzah purchases at the Maryina Roshcha Synagogue is all the morepoignant because this was the site of an unsolved 1993 arson thatdestroyed the structure and a 1998 bombing, also unsolved, that blew ahole in a brick wall.

Today, a tall iron fence and round-the-clock security men provide adegree of protection to worshippers and those working on an adjacentseven-story, $11-million Jewish community center due to open inSeptember.

Elsewhere in the Russian capital, anecdotal evidence abounds of ageneral revival in Jewish life. Since last fall, two worship centershave opened, one for Reform Jews and the other for Orthodox SephardicJews. Just this month, another tony restaurant added a Jewish menu,bringing to eight the number of Jewish eateries that adhere to varying degrees to keeping kosher.

Ironically, the number of Jews emigrating from Russia to Israel morethan doubled last year to about 31,000, a figure that is not expected tochange significantly this year.

"We are expecting similar numbers," said Michael Jankelowitz, aspokesman for Israel's Jewish Agency, in a telephone interview fromJerusalem. "On the ground nothing has changed. The economy has notstabilized. The war in Chechnya has not led to a stabilization of thepolitical situation."

Jankelowitz, whose quasi-governmental agency helps resettle Jews in Israel, attributed the jump in emigration to continued anti-Semitic incidents and little faith in the Russian economy in the wake of the brutal 1998 devaluation of the ruble. Figures are hard to come by, but some estimates put the number of Jews living in Russia at about 500,000, and in Moscow at more than 200,000.

As Weisberg explained, one reason for the difficulty with statisticsis that "the more Jews that leave Russia, the more people that keepstepping forward and saying they are Jewish."

In Moscow, the migration of Jews from Russia's volatile Caucasusregion has changed and invigorated the city's religious life. Many ofthe new arrivals are Mountain Jews, people from the Caucasus who speak a Persiandialect and are renowned for their piety and adherence to tradition.

Akif Gilalov, the 22-year-old president of a company that operatesfour Moscow shopping centers, is a Mountain Jew who, with his brother,paid for the recent construction of an Orthodox prayer hall. Named inmemory of his father, who was murdered in 1997, the prayer hall wasopened in November for use by some of the more than 5,000 Mountain Jewswho have moved to Moscow in the last 10 years and have their own,Sephardic style of worship.

"I'm not especially religious but I want to help my people wheneverpossible," said Gilalov, adding that maintaining religious traditionswould be key to the survival of Mountain Jews' language and culture.

On the other side of Moscow, Rabbi Haim Ben-Yakov, of the Union ofReligious Organizations of Progressive Judaism in Russia, inauguratedMoscow's first center for the city's estimated 1,000 Progressive Jews,the Russian equivalent of Reform Jews.

"I think there is some kind of renaissance going on," saidBen-Yakov, 30, who was born here and moved to Israel in 1989. Since thecenter's opening in the fall, he said, interest in Progressive Judaismhas taken off, especially among the young.

"These aren't just people who have nothing else to do, people whoare on pensions and just want to get out of the house," said Ben-Yakov,a man with large brown eyes and an earnest manner. "These are busypeople and they are the future of Judaism here."

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