The Pale of Settlement and nearby areas around the Black and Caspian seas, where Jews lived for centuries, were full of cities that had rich Jewish pasts.
Sochi was not one of those cities.
The emerging Jewish community of post-communist Russia is full of cities that boast a wide range of religious, educational and cultural Jewish organizations.
Sochi is not one of those cities.
The cities that host Olympic Games usually offer various Jewish sites and monuments that attract Jewish tourists who arrive in large numbers to watch the international athletic competition.
Sochi also offers none of this.
But the sprawling city of 400,000 on the northeast shore of the Black Sea, near the border with Georgia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place beginning Feb. 7, will present visitors with its own type of Jewish attraction; it offers a chance to see a Jewish renaissance that has taken place over the last two-plus decades in the former Soviet Union, far away from the better-known Jewish population centers to the east.
Few people, outside of travel aficionados familiar with the city’s moderate, seacoast climate, had heard of Sochi before seven years ago, when the International Olympic Committee picked it as the host of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games (the Paralympic Games follow there on March 7-16). And the city was most likely not on the itinerary of either general tourists seeking a glamorous place to unwind, or of Jews making back-to-roots pilgrimages.
This month, Sochi, with a Jewish population of about 3,000, will write its modern history.
“Everyone is excited” about the Games, said Rabbi Arie Edelkopf, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who, with his Israeli-born wife, Chani, serves as de facto leader of all Jewish activities that take place there. In recent months the Sochi synagogue, housed in a three-story Jewish Community Center building, has undergone extensive renovations, and the synagogue received two new Torah scrolls donated by supportive Russian Jewish families.
The first Winter Games to take place in Russia will serve as a centerpiece of President Vladimir Putin’s effort to present a moderate, peaceful image for the country, though critics have long complained of a return to authoritarian rule. Sochi, a favorite Putin vacation spot, was known as the place where Joseph Stalin vacationed in the 1930s.
Developed as a tourist destination beginning in the late 1800s, Sochi, the site of seaside health spas, was built up after the 1917 revolution. During Stalin’s reign in the 1930s and ’40s, the city underwent more reconstruction as a fashionable resort area, with the active participation of many Jews who numbered among civic leaders and engineers.
The Sochi Jewish community (fjc.ru/sochi), the rabbi said, has worked with the Sochi Organizing Committee to plan tourist-friendly activities.
Like the Jewish communities in all Olympic host cities in recent years, Sochi’s has set up a calendar of events for out-of-town Jews. On the schedule are a reception to welcome Jewish athletes (with an emphasis on the small Israeli delegation) and other visiting Jews; kosher food that will be available at several Olympic venues; worship services to which visitors will be invited; specially designed classes on several aspects of Judaism; and, in the period before the Games’ start, advice on the availability of affordable housing. (For information: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or jewishsochi.com.)
Rabbi Edelkopf said he has recruited a dozen rabbis to serve as chaplains in Sochi and the surrounding Olympic areas during the Games. He said he has set up a pair of temporary Chabad Houses for the two weeks of the Olympic Games.
Besides the Edelkopfs, the only other full-time Jewish presence in the city is the Chesed humanitarian organization that is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Rabbi Edelkopf, who already knew “a little Russian” because he had grandparents from Siberia, and his wife came to Sochi 12 years ago after leading Passover seders in 2001 to gauge their interest in the city. They are responsible for both standard rabbinic and federation-type activities, such as officiating at funerals, carrying out personal counseling, running a kosher soup kitchen and mikveh, leading a pre-school and Hebrew school, representing the community for the media and government, finding interested children for a summer camp.
(The commitment of a couple like the Edelkopfs is typical of how Jewish life has sustained itself in small Jewish communities in the FSU and Eastern Europe since Communism fell in the region.
The JCC also offers a women’s club, a computer club, technology lessons, a community library, and it publishes a monthly newspaper called Lechaim Sochi.
The Jewish Community of Sochi was founded in 1992 as the Magen Center of Jewish Culture, under the auspices of Russian Jews who had little exposure to Jewish tradition under seven decades of communist rule; it was mandated to encourage the study of Jewish folk history. The nascent organization’s leaders organized holiday celebrations, museum exhibitions and Hebrew lessons. Funds were contributed by community members; since 1994, the Community has received financial support from the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia.
In recent years the Edelkopfs, with financial assistance from the Rohr Family Foundation of New York, have reached out to scattered nearby Jews.
As in many former Iron Curtain countries, the Jewish community of Sochi adds people on a regular basis, men and women who belatedly discover their Jewish background or decide to become affiliated, Rabbi Edelkopf says. “Every day we have new people.”