Of the ten thousand Jews living in Kazan, Russia, hundreds attend last weekend’s Limmud FSU festival, where the emphasis was placed on coexistence between different religions.
As headlines in Europe reported about the Muslim refugee crisis, and the strengthening of the extreme right, Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in Russia, is an island of coexistence symbolized by an interfaith conference attended by Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious representatives.
Tatarstan is a rare point in the European and international landscape: a Muslim republic on a continent trying to preserve its Christian character in light of recent events, in which most of its residents are openly moderate Muslims.
Interfaith conference in Kazan
“There is much to learn from the relationships between the different nationalities living in Kazan,” said the chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar. “With openness and a genuine desire to coexist, one can go far. The former president and the current president respect the Jewish community, and this is model from which a lot can be learned.”
An island of peace
Only ten thousand Jews live in Kazan, a small but significant minority. Among the attendees of a conference held by the organization Limmud FSU in the capital were the Chief Rabbi of Russia, the Chief Rabbi of Tatarstan, Yitzhak Gorelik, Julius Meinl, president of the World Jewish Congress Euro-Asian, and the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kamil Hazart Samigolin – alongside leaders of the Orthodox church and the Protestant Church.
Immediately afterwards, the centenary celebration of the synagogue in Kazan took place, and was attended by the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, who also praised the coexistence between the different religions.
For the sake of example take the case of Amina Afkaiba. She is a proud Muslim Tatar, who attended the event to honor the Jewish minority. When I ask her if this was just for show , she recounted that “a few years ago the Chief Rabbi of Tatarstan was interviewed by the national press, and was asked if there was no conflict between him and the country’s mufti.
“The rabbi replied that he had a very difficult conflict with the Muslim cleric, as the mufti has six children, and he has only four. But do not worry,” Amina winked, “Your rabbi won, and now has eight children.”
A refusenik returns to prison
More than 400 Jews from all over Kazan and the Ural Mountains, attended the conference held by Limmud FSU, an organization whose goal is to bring young Jews from the former Soviet Union closer to Jewish culture and heritage.
Chaim Chesler, the founder, said, “Until now we worked with the Jewish communities in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Far East Russia, and this is the first time a conference was held in Kazan. It is a huge community event, which transpires at the 90 year anniversary of the birth of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.”
For Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich it was no less than a historic event. In 1970 he took part in “Operation Wedding,” in which 16 Soviet refuseniks tried to hijack a plane to cross the Iron Curtain and make aliyah. Out of 11 years as a refusenik, he was forced to spend three years in especially harsh conditions in a prison near Kazan, because of his insistence on keeping Shabbat and being observant.
This is actually the first time Rabbi Mendelevich returned to Kazan since his release. “I assume that most Russian Jews have already made aliyah, and the loose ends stayed here,” he told Ynet. “Limmud’s work is very important. It actually collects them one by one. It is a pleasure and joy that after a long and successful struggle, I come back and am still participating in saving Jews.”
Roman Kogan, CEO of Limmud, said that what distinguishes this conference, as well as the rest of the organization’s conferences is the fact that the participants of the conference are those who organize it from start to finish. They are the ones who choose the speakers, workshops and performances, and naturally all the speakers do it as volunteers.
The birth battle
During the conference last weekend there were lectures, concerts and workshops for adults and children. Among others, the rock band Gaflita Drive, which is composed of Israelis who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, sang songs in Yiddish, Russian as well as Israeli songs. There was also a special appearance by Hanan Yovel and the band “BiAlma”, dedicated to the 90th anniversary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
At the end of the conference Rabbi Gorelik went to the local airport to say goodbye to his parents and Israeli journalists who participated in the conference. At the end of the goodbyes and hugs he was asked if there is any truth to the legend of the birth battle between him and the Mufti. “That story is really not accurate,” says Rabbi Gorelik with a broad smile, “I have nine children, not eight.”