Russian Jews serving time in a remote penitentiary had special reason to celebrate Rosh Hashana with the opening of the first synagogue in a Russian state-run prison.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Aaron Gurevich, who serves as the chief Jewish chaplain for the Russian military and law enforcement agencies, formally consecrated the house of prayer at a ceremony last week at the central jail in Ertsevo, in Russia's remote Arkhangelsk region, more than 1,100 kilometers northwest of Moscow.
"There are 11 Jews in the Arkhangelsk prison and a month ago they appealed to the Russian State Corrections Administration to obtain a separate area where they could pray and learn Torah," Rabbi Gurevich told The Jerusalem Post. "Their request was granted, and they refurbished the site and even made the menora and the bima themselves."
At the ceremony, which was also attended by senior Russian prison officials, the rabbi demonstrated the blowing of the shofar for them.
"They have returned to their faith while in prison, but many of them are serving very long sentences," he said.
According to Gurevich, there are approximately 1,200 Jewish inmates in Russian prisons, of whom some 400 openly proclaim their identity.
"Generally speaking, Jewish prisoners are spread out among hundreds of prisons throughout the country," he noted, adding that, "there are only a few with as many as five or six Jews who are serving together at the same time."
As part of its outreach work, Chabad-Lubavitch sends packages of kosher food and Jewish books to Jewish inmates across Russia. In six months, the rabbi said, a synagogue is slated to open in another prison, in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where nearly 20 Jewish prisoners are serving time.
The increased chaplaincy work among Russia's imprisoned Jews is due to an agreement that was signed between state authorities and the Chabad-Lubavitch affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.
"We are grateful for the cooperation, which allows us to meet the spiritual needs of our fellow Jews who find themselves behind bars," said Gurevich.