SOCHI, Russia — The 2014 Winter Olympics that will begin here on February 7 are already being overshadowed by an international outcry over the Kremlin’s policy toward gay rights, its suppression of dissident political voices, and protests by environmentalists outraged at the material and natural cost of the most expensive Olympic Games ever. And then there's the simmering tension with the country’s minorities, particularly the Muslim population of the Caucasus region, near Sochi, where a bloody counter-insurgency campaign continues against militant organizations. But there is one minority group in Russia that has been repressed and persecuted there for centuries but seems to be fully behind the Sochi Olympics: the Jews.
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These are the first games at which the Olympic villages will have specially designated synagogues, complete with prayer books and Torah scrolls. Previous Olympics had multi-faith prayer areas, but this is the first time that there will be churches, mosques and synagogues on site. Less than two weeks before the games begin, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Sochi, is still putting the finishing touches to the synagogues, taking delivery from Israel of small curtains for the Torah arks. He says with a smile that he toyed with the idea of embroidering the Olympic rings on them, but decided against it.
“I did some research and it seems the symbol has a Hellenistic origin, so I decided we can’t put that in a synagogue," he said. "The Olympics are a very physical and non-Jewish concept, but we are trying to put some spirituality in it.”
Chabad’s efforts seem rather excessive. Edelkof will be reinforced by no less than 12 other rabbis during the games. They are supposed to help him distribute kosher food, conduct prayer services and give lectures on Judaism — all for five Israeli athletes and a tiny handful of Jewish members of the American and Russian delegations. “It’s never about the numbers,” says Edelkopf. “We aim to be here for every Jew, and besides, we will also be giving out booklets on sports and Jewish spirituality to the goyim.”
The synagogues in Sochi aren't tapping into some pre-Communist era Jewish heritage there.
Many cities and towns in Russia have some Jewish history, even if only the memory of a community that existed before the 1917 revolution and may have continued underground during Communist times. But Sochi, which was little more than a village until Joseph Stalin ordered it transformed into a summertime spa town in the 1930s, never had a synagogue or any other communal organization before Edelkopf arrived there 12 years ago.
That doesn’t mean there were no Jews there at all.
Even at the height of Communist repression, there were some among the immigrants and holidaymakers who arrived in the growing town, where small groups arrived for vacations in September, around the High Holy Days. The more religious-minded among them held secret prayers in their rooms; others simply enjoyed hearing violinists play klezmer music in the restaurants by the shore.
Today, Edelkopf knows of about 2,000 Jews living in the greater Sochi area, a string of towns sprawling along 140 kilometers of the Black Sea. And while Edelkopf says there are cities in Russia with much larger Jewish populations that don't have a rabbi, Chabad headquarters decided to send him there as an emissary of the movement “because many people come here on vacation from all around Russia, when they are relaxed and open, and this is the place to reach them.”
But there is also a political undertone to his presence, as there is to much of Chabad’s activities in Russia.
Long before the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi was the favored summer destination of President Vladimir Putin — who personally lobbied to have the Olympics held there — and Chabad officials are close to the president.
The Hasidic sect, which is now headquartered in Brooklyn but originated two centuries ago as the Lubavitch movement in Russia and was ruthlessly persecuted, first by the Czarist secret police and then by the KGB, has returned in force to Russia and is today closely aligned with Putin’s government. The Chabad-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities is the main Jewish organization recognized by the Kremlin, and in some cases, Chabad emissaries have pushed out other rabbis.
While human rights groups report a worrying descent into authoritarianism under Putin, Chabad rabbis praise the current regime, saying it has been standing fast against anti-Semitism.
“I’ve had people shout at me ‘dirty Jew’ in California,” says the Los Angeles-raised Edelkopf. “It would be unthinkable here. A few years ago, a woman wrote a nasty piece about Jews in a local newspaper. We complained and she was fined, given a suspended prison sentence, and forbidden from writing in a newspaper for 10 years. So where is there a better democracy? Here or in the U.S., with its separation of state and religion? The local government has just given us a plot of land in a good location to build a new center. In Europe synagogues have massive security; we don’t need any here. The government here respects the Jewish people and they miss all the Jews that emigrated.”
Other members of the Jewish community echo the rabbi. “I haven’t seen a hint of anti-Semitism in Sochi,” says Alex Feldman, a real estate investor. “Most people here are immigrants who came because there are jobs and investment opportunities and the atmosphere is very friendly.”
Another local Jewish businessman points out that the road leading to the current Jewish center just been resurfaced, while many of the roads in the adjacent neighborhood are still rutted and full of potholes, despite the massive investment in transportation infrastructure before the Olympics.
So are Putin and his Olympics good for the Jews?
Edelkopf and Chabad insist that’s the case. Few Jewish leaders elsewhere are prepared to speak out against Putin’s policies, mainly out of concern for the welfare of Russia's Jewish community. Senior Israeli ministers aren't speaking up either. Even though Putin has backed both Iran and Syria, any criticism they may have is relegated to their periodic closed meetings with the Russian president.
President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been hosted by Putin in the Kremlin as well as at his summer residence in Sochi.
Hatred of Jews still lingers in Russia, though it is primarily evident on the Internet, where comments on Jews profiting from the Olympic building contracts are easy to find.
“Putin seems to be that rare being, a Russian nationalist not tainted by anti-Semitism,” says a leading professional in a major Jewish organization who has many years of experience in Russia and asked to remain unnamed. “But his attitude is largely instrumental. He believes the Jews have major influence around the world, especially in Washington, so he suppresses anti-Semitism, not out of any great sense of tolerance or human rights."
Once Putin goes offstage, Russia could face a resurgence of anti-Semitism, warns the Jewish organization official. "He has an alliance with Chabad, who receive his support and reward him with loyalty and PR," the Jewish official said. "But anti-Semitism has not left Russia. It is in recession for now, and the ties between Putin and the Jews are stoking future hatred when a new leader comes along.”