Tomsk education center announces Jewish revival
In the heart of Siberia, Russia, the city of Tomsk has long been home to a rich Jewish past. With the inauguration of its new Cultural and Educational Center for Children on September 12, the city’s Jewish community celebrated a bright future.
Located next to the Tomsk Choral Synagogue, the new center has 25,000 square feet of modern facilities, making it the largest Jewish educational center east of the Ural Mountains.
The center houses a kindergarten and preschool groups for up to fifty children. In addition, some two hundred local children of all ages will use the facility to learn Russian, English and Hebrew alongside computers, social studies, chess, drama and music. It is the only building in Tomsk to offer such modern equipment as a robotics lab, a pottery workshop and a ping-pong table. For now, these programs remain far from maximum capacity and registration is open to children in local municipal schools.
The opening ceremony in September marked the first major new construction in a Jewish community that only recently recovered ownership of its historic synagogues from the Russian government. The date of the ceremony marked the 120th anniversary of the founding of one of these synagogues, the Choral Synagogue, which adjoins the center. The memorabilia kept within the walls of the synagogue tell a story that has made the city of Tomsk a symbol for the Russian Jewish community of the determination to remain Jewish through thick and thin.
Many of the Jews who found themselves in the distant and icy Tomsk and founded the Choral Synagogue in 1902 were former Cantonists. Under Tsar Nicholas I’s cantonal decree of 1827, Jewish boys were torn from their parents’ arms at the age of eight and forced into brutal cantonal military schools. There, Russian sergeants did their best to steal their Jewish identity from the young men. Jewish Cantonists were generally enlisted younger and forced to serve longer sentences than other recruits, with the implicit aim of assimilating them into Russian imperial society. While nearly a third of these boys capitulated to the growing pressure to abandon the religion of their fathers, many more firmly clung to their Judaism.
The Bolshevik authorities confiscated the two synagogues in the city following the rise of communism. After spending the Soviet era as a courthouse, the choral synagogue was finally returned to the Jewish community by Russian authorities in 1999. After a lengthy restoration process, the synagogue finally reopened in 2010 under the leadership of the local Chabad representative, the rabbi Levy Kaminetzky. Today, some three hundred faithful converge there for the major holidays, as Jewish life has started to flourish again in the city.
The opening of the Cultural and Educational Center for Children marks an important milestone for the legendary community. Around 100 city officials, supporters and residents gathered to celebrate the occasion. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel lazar flew two thousand miles from Moscow to attend the ceremony and ritually affixed a mezuzah to the center door post. Speaking to a large crowd, Rabbi Lazar was surprised to see so many supporters at a time when most people think twice before leaving their homes due to the pandemic. “Seeing so many people come today is a sign that this center is not only needed but is long overdue,” he said.
Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, praised the ethical education the school will provide. “Creating a platform for traditional education, especially when morals and ethics are top priorities, is the best possible investment in the future of our children.”
“It’s about restoring a Jewish future for the community of Tomsk,” says rabbi Kaminestzky. “90 years ago the community here had a synagogue and a school for their children. We are now bringing back a Jewish future for the children of Tomsk.