A Sunday in the park. A brilliant, bright sun warms the air. The frozen tundra has given way to seedlings, flowers and patches of green. On this day, memories of the harsh Russian winter recede like so much melted snow.
Along with the blue skies and verdant forests, Judaism has returned here after a long hibernation. About 125 Russian Jews gathered May 9 to celebrate Lag B'Omer, a minor Jewish holiday that commemorates the day a plague ended during the time of Rabbi Akiba. Boys kicked around a soccer ball. Parents stopped to catch up with old friends or to share a smoke. A crowd huddled around a fiery barbecue from which the sweet smells of succulent chicken kabobs wafted.
Spring had arrived in Kazan, a city of 1.4 million about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Life seemed especially good for the estimated 7,000 Jews who continue to call the place home. For decades, Kazan's Jews had lived uncomfortably in an atheist state that viewed them as outsiders. Practicing Judaism during the Soviet era -- publicly or even privately -- could derail careers, lead to academic expulsions and attract the unwanted attention of the KGB.
Today, a Jewish renaissance is taking place in Kazan, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In the past 15 years, a Jewish community has slowly grown up in here, partly under the auspices of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Kazan has a renovated Jewish community center in the heart of town that houses a synagogue, a mikvah (ritual bath), and a library teeming with Jewish texts. Jewish pensioners receive free medical care, meals and Hebrew lessons from a group called Hessid. In March, a new 30-minute radio program about Jewish philosophy began airing on a local station.
"We now have the possibility in Kazan to say we're Jewish and proud of it," said Sofia Botodova, a 45-year-old mother of two and director of cultural programs for the Jewish Community Center. "We can celebrate all the Jewish holidays and invite our non-Jewish and Jewish friends. We can have a Jewish life here."
That's not to suggest anti-Semitism has disappeared from the Russian landscape. It hasn't, said Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International. In recent years, Jews have been beaten, robbed and intimidated for their beliefs, and Russian authorities have sometimes shown a reluctance to classify anti-Semetic acts as hate crimes, he said.
Still, many Jews in Kazan and elsewhere in the FSU said things have improved dramatically since the crumbling of communism.
Grigory Dyakov, born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, said religion never mattered much to him growing up. But when his grandmother died six years ago, Dyakov went to temple to say Kaddish, the mourner's prayer for the dead. The 32-year-old investment banker said he discovered a beauty in Judaism that completed him. He has since become an Orthodox Jew and underwent an adult circumcision in 1999.
"The synagogue has become my top priority," he said as he performed the Jewish religious custom of wrapping tefillin. "I come to pray in the morning, at lunch and in the evening. I am a better Jew, and I think a better person as well."
Kazan State University student Jenya Sontz said she has forged her closest friendships at the Union of Kazan Jewish Youth Center. There, students celebrate Shabbat, attend lectures on Judaism and feel pride in their heritage.
"Maybe it's a cliché to say, but we're all family," she said.
In Kazan, Chabad works in tandem with several other Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel and the Russian Jewish Congress to support Jewish life. Elsewhere in the FSU, Chabad is "the only game in town," said Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch" (Schoken Books, 2003).
The group has permanently stationed 220 rabbis throughout the FSU, funds seven Jewish day schools, 10 Jewish orphanages, Jewish summer camps and soup kitchens, among other projects. Its annual budget for the region of $60 million dwarfs that of other Jewish organizations. Chabad traces its roots to the former Russian city of Lubavitch.
Some Russian Jews mutter privately that Chabad wants nothing less than to turn the largely secular Jews of the FSU into ultra-Orthodox foot soldiers. Nonsense, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.
"Chabad wants to help every Jew: man, woman, or child, to appreciate and love their faith and traditions more and go up one step at a time to add a little more to their observance," he said.
Kazan was gentler to its Jews than most other parts of the FSU. Jews began settling there in the 1830s when the czar forcibly conscripted young Jewish boys to serve him in the region. Jewish traders and craftsman followed, bringing the Jewish population to about 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. In 1915, the relatively prosperous Jewish community opened a synagogue, which the Soviets later nationalized and turned into a cultural center for teachers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish students barred from their home universities fled to Kazan where anti-Jewish quotas were more relaxed. Kazan authorities sometimes looked the other way when Jews celebrated minor Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah or baked matzah in their homes.
But Kazan's Jews faced insurmountable obstacles to practicing their faith. During Soviet times, there existed "no Jewish schools, no Jewish education, really no organized Jewish life here," said Lev Bunimovich, a 77-year-old retired welder. Even in the nominally tolerant '60s, a Jewish professor of mathematics lost his job for refusing to teach on Shabbat.
Under former Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, Jewish culture reasserted itself in Kazan. Jewish youth choirs and klezmer bands emerged and held large concerts. Hundreds attended public seders. Still, about 4,000 of Kazan's Jews immigrated to Israel and the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Surprisingly, those who decided to stay behind did -- not because they had lost touch with their heritage -- but because they wanted to build a Jewish life in their homeland. Israel's economic woes and vulnerability to terrorism have put a brake on new immigration and have actually led to a reverse migration. In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Soviet Israeli Jews have returned to the FSU, experts said.
Alexander Velder is one Kazan's many Jews who said he has no regrets about remaining. The 45-year-old furniture manufacturer chairs a local philanthropic organization called the United Jewish Council of Kazan. The group is actively raising local money to build Russia's first Jewish home for the aging, which, when completed next year, will house 50 seniors.
Reflecting on Kazan's Jewish renaissance, Velder smiled and said: "It was never like this for most of my life."