It takes a five-hour flight from Moscow over the empty expanses of Sibera to reach Novosibirsk, a city known to outsiders mainly as a curious stopover on the Trans-Siberian railway.
But the city has a secret: a Jewish community centre to make shul-goers across the world green with envy.
In late August, the Jews of Novosibirsk celebrated the opening of a new complex that includes a vast synagogue, a kosher restaurant and food shop, mikvehs for women and men, study rooms and a banqueting hall for weddings, barmitzvahs and brit mila. There are also plans to open computer rooms and a swimming pool.
“More than 1,000 people attended the opening ceremony on August 28, including members of the community, local residents and the mayor of Novosibirsk, who is very supportive of our community,” said Rabbi Zalman Zaklos, the Chief Rabbi of Novosibirsk, during a tour of the building.
The 35,000 sq m complex cost at least $5 million to build, most of which was donated by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union and international foundations worldwide.
Parts of the building, Rabbi Zaklos boasts, are made from Jerusalem stone that was specially shipped to Novosibirsk.
About 20,000 Jews live in Novosibirsk today, 6,000 of whom are registered members of the Jewish community. “We celebrate Jewish holidays and Shabbat together, we operate a school and kindergarten for Jewish children, conduct Torah and Hebrew lessons, and we have a women’s club. Siberia has a large and vibrant Jewish community,” said Rabbi Zaklos.
The rabbi explained that the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, met him in Israel to ask him to go to Novosibirsk to become chief rabbi there.
“My wife and I didn’t even think about it seriously, what would we do in Siberia?” he recalled with a smile.
He eventually took up the post after Rabbi Lazar flew him to the city for a visit.