Ultra-wealthy Moscow suburb attracts Jews
ANT KATZ with JTA
Zhukovka and the adjacent riverside village of Barvikha are home to some of Russia’s richest and most powerful people. Among the combined 5 500 residents living in the villages are Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has a $52 million mansion in the area, and the Russian Jewish construction magnates Boris and Arkady Rotenberg. All three are associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Ordinary” millionaires who live here must wait patiently as VIPs travel in motorcades to and from Moscow, or receive visits by senior officials. So do the tourists who come here to catch a glimpse of the village’s sprawling villas, with their private tennis courts and hedge mazes.
But this month, Muscovites, and Jews especially, received a more accessible attraction in Zhukovka: A $20 million Jewish community centre (JCC) and shul which opened there on December 6 amid fanfare and in the presence of 400 guests, including Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau.
RIGHT: A creation of the international design firm Gensler, the Zhukovka JCC is a doughnut-shaped structure with a granite facade, a small cinema and 24 luxury guest rooms that are intended to be used free of charge by Shabbat over-nighters
And while the new JCC is seen as a demonstration of this community’s robustness, it nonetheless comes amid growing Jewish emigration that is widely attributed to the financial crisis in Russia and concern over its government’s nationalist agenda.
At the heart of the building is a shul with a capacity for 400 worshippers and modular tables made of Swedish wood. The basement has still-unfinished, warm-water mikvah (ritual bath). The building is under the watchful eye of 24/7 security guards, who operate airport-grade body and luggage scanners.
LEFT: Renouned Kosher
restaurateur Uilliam Lamberti
The basement of the JCC, which was built with money donated by wealthy Jews (and some non-Jews), has a gourmet kosher restaurant. Its kitchen is overseen by two Italian chefs, including the renowned restaurateur Uilliam Lamberti.
Among the first-time visitors to the centre last week was Oleg Babinski, a retired army officer and business owner in his 50s who worships with the Zhukovka Jewish community, though he does not live in the village.
“I am not a rich man, but it still fills me with pride to see that our community can achieve something like this,” Babinski said.
Neighbours luxury malls, stores, car dealerships
Such a building would stand out almost anywhere else in Russia, where the average monthly salary among city-dwellers is less than $600. But it’s par for the course in Zhukovka, where the shopping malls have Gucci and Prada stores, and there are a host of luxury car dealerships.
At one mini-mall this year, local Jews placed a large menorah opposite a Bentley dealership.
LEFT: Zhukovka’s Porsche dealership
No-one knows exactly how many Jews live in and around Zhukovka. But it’s doubtful there are enough to fill the shul.
“Granted, this place is a little big for the community’s needs right now,” said Velvel Krichevsky, a Chabad rabbi from Israel who will be working at Zhukovka. But, he added, it had been built “with an eye to the future needs of a growing community”.
The head rabbi at Zhukovka is Alexander Boroda, pictured above, who is also the president of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a vast network whose rabbis have formed a main engine for the renewal of Jewish life in Russia since the fall of communism.
Among those rabbis is Berel Lazar, one of two chief rabbis in Russia. Lazar is known for his close ties to Vladimir Putin – the two men lit Chanukah candles together at the Kremlin on December 9.
RIGHT: Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and President Vladimir Putin
The Federation’s ties with Russian politicians have been instrumental in obtaining land and some funding for opening dozens of Jewish institutions across the country. The Zhukovka Centre, however, was developed without such aid.
The decision to build a Jewish centre in Zhukovka came at the request of wealthy Jews living in the area, said Boroda.
“My friends asked for a shul near their home, and I wanted to open a Chabad House somewhere, so that’s why it happened there,” he said at the opening. Rabbi Boroda is a former Red Army soldier who began exploring his Jewish identity after his discharge from the military in the 1980s.
Prior residents like Molotov persecuted Jewry
Still, there is symbolism in the centre’s opening in Zhukovka. The village, after all, used to be the resort destination of Russian Communist government leaders – the Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin’s daughter both used to live there at a time when they were instrumental in persecuting Russian Jewry and effectively driving it underground.
“This is going to be really great in summer,” said Rosa Skvortsov, 10, of Zhukovka, who attends the Reshit Chochma Litvak religious school in Moscow. Rosa visited the centre last week with her father, Vasily, a film director, and a friend.
But the new centre’s future is by no means certain. Built with funds collected over years, it opened at the height of a financial crisis that has halved the value of the ruble against the dollar since August 2014 amid dropping oil prices and Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Although many Jews are assured by Putin’s pro-Jewish policies, others are jittery over his overt nationalism and expansionism, as well as his government’s xenophobia toward gays and Muslims. The combination has already generated a 31 per cent year-over-year increase in Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Russia, which is home to about 260 000 Jews. In 2014, some 5 921 Russian Jews made aliyah, compared to 4 094 the previous year.
Russian aliyah is rising fast
According to Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which facilitates aliyah, there’s been a rise in the number of Jews moving to Israel from Moscow and St Petersburg, where Russian Jewry’s intellectual and financial elites tend to live, and where Jews used to be more resistant to leaving than their coreligionists in poorer areas.
These developments already are affecting the fundraising ability of Jewish groups. In Zhukovka, the congregants who asked Boroda to build the centre “have all left, some to Europe, others elsewhere”, the Zhukovka rabbi said.
RIGHT: Residents asked for a shul near their home, said Rabbi Boroda at the opening, “and I wanted to open a Chabad House”
Still, Boroda insists that others have replaced those who have departed and his community will continue to raise enough money to maintain its infrastructure, including the high-maintenance centre in Zhukovka.
“You don’t build a shul according to this year’s balance sheet,” he said.
And, while emigration may be on the rise, Boroda added that “Russian Jews as a whole are never going to let go of what we have achieved just because of a few rough years”.