JERUSALEM — This is my first Yom Kippur in exile.
The crisp Moscow autumn air; the illuminated synagogue which I called home for 30 years; my white hat and kittel, the robe Jews wear on the High Holy Days, folded up, in my apartment that now sits locked — it all seems like a dream.
As the chief rabbi of Moscow, I used to prepare for this holiday for weeks. Some of the work was technical — securing cantors and shofar blowers for synagogues across Russia, or guiding the sick on whether or not they should fast on the holy day. Some of the preparation was more lofty: I would prepare my sermon thoughts while walking daily for early morning penitential prayers, past the bustling cafes on Pokrovka Street, down the hill on Arkhipova Street, up the stairs to the pale yellow synagogue, with its dome. In the days leading up to the holidays, one could hear the cantorial choir rehearsing in the wooden balcony of the century-old sanctuary.
For years, we hoped that democratic institutions in Russia would take root. We hoped that Jewish communities could keep their distance from President Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism. His regime’s social contract, after all, was that the population would not be politically active, while allowing the authorities to conduct their affairs. Our hopes were crushed.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everything changed. The government began to shift to semi-totalitarianism; the surviving independent media was shut down; protesters were arrested. Soon, I received reports of religious community leaders — priests, imams, rabbis — being pressured to express their support for the military. One day, a government source informed the synagogue that we would be expected to support the war — or else.
It was then that my wife and I decided to leave the country. This will be our first Yom Kippur in true exile from the place we called our home for three decades.
Moscow’s Choral Synagogue has seen many historic Yom Kippurs: In 1933, Rabbi Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia, one of my predecessors as chief rabbi of Moscow, gave a sermon from that pulpit. According to the stories passed down by Moscow rabbis, Rabbi Medalia, knowing that every word he uttered was being monitored, delivered his sermon that day in coded language. The Soviet authorities had declared a working day, even though it was Saturday, in order to prevent the hundreds of thousands of Moscow Jews from going to synagogue on the holiest day of the year. However, as the day neared its end, tens of thousands of Jews found their way to Arkhipova Street, to the synagogue.
In his sermon, the tale goes, Rabbi Medalia told the story of two Jews in a small village with one central road, who came to the rabbi with a live chicken. Each claimed ownership. The rabbi decreed: Put the chicken in the middle of the road and untie its legs and we will see where the chicken will go. This was the whole sermon — a veiled parable for the Jews whose legs had been untied, now finding their way to the place they belonged, the synagogue. Later, Rabbi Medalia was arrested and shot by the secret police. This was the legacy I inherited.
Fifteen years after Rabbi Medalia’s sermon, Golda Meir, the first diplomatic envoy of the newly born State of Israel, would visit the synagogue. Tens of thousands of Soviet Jews showed up, crowding around the synagogue just to catch a glimpse of an emissary of their far-off homeland. Meir would later reminisce about the way that the walls of the synagogue would shake, the thousands of Jews chanting, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
I was a 25-year-old rabbi when my wife and I first arrived in Moscow in 1989, during perestroika. Born in Zurich and educated in Israel, I had arrived under the auspices of Moscow’s Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., which established a Center for Jewish Civilization. I had joined the academy officially as a visiting professor, hoping to assist in the rebuilding of Jewish life after 70 years of Soviet repression. A year later, I was called upon to be rabbi of the city’s Choral Synagogue.
I will never forget my first Yom Kippur in that sanctuary. It was a daunting task at times: Serving the thousands of post-Soviet Jews coming to shul, most of whom had no knowledge of Hebrew and therefore could not follow the prayers and couldn’t pray. As a result, people came in for a short time to meditate quietly, independent of the communal prayer, and then strike up a conversation with a neighbor or just read a book or newspaper. I would pause the prayers at certain intervals to explain the liturgy, and then read the prayer word by word. As the years passed, the congregation changed, with more and more community members able to participate and lead.
It is painful to imagine reciting the closing climactic prayers far from my community. Even in my early years there, even when few knew the prayers, we used to shout the final words of the service in unison. It was the sound of a community of survivors — survivors of Communism, antisemitism, the obsessive machine that sought to destroy their identities. And yet, there we were.
This year, I will divide my time between a few Jerusalem synagogues. Here, and across other cities of Israel, I meet new Jewish émigrés from Russia, the tens of thousands of fellow Jews who have fled since the start of the war. We reminisce about our pasts, and look ahead to our future.
It is strange to feel in exile in Jerusalem, in the Jewish ancestral land — but home is strange like that. Over the centuries, rabbis used to sign their names on documents, not as a “rabbi of” a certain city, but rather “as a temporary dweller” of that city. The role of a religious leader is not only to be a pastoral guide, not only to answer questions and lead services and give sermons, the beautiful and glorious moments that fill one with meaning, a sense of purpose and awe. Those are, so to speak, the easy parts of the rabbinate.
The hardest task of religious leadership is to take moral stances in difficult times, no matter the cost.
And this is perhaps what the shofar, the ram’s horn that Jews blow on the High Holy Days, represents. According to the Bible, the shofar blow is the sound of freedom. It was historically blown at the beginning of the jubilee year — the year that freed all slaves and returned all sold ancestral property. The sound of the shofar blow is meant to remind us of both freedom and equality.
When we blow that shofar this year, let us remember how a peaceful world must rely on the fundamentals of liberty and life, not only for individuals but also among nations. For so long, we had assumed these qualities were a given in Western society — until they no longer were.
When we blow that shofar this year, let us remember that it is the role of faith to counter evil, to fight for the basic human rights of liberty and life.
And sometimes, the costs of blowing that shofar are high — sometimes, one is dragged off by the secret police, and sometimes, one finds oneself in exile.
This High Holy Days, let the cries of that ancient horn be heard.
Pinchas Goldschmidt was the chief rabbi of Moscow from 1993 to 2022. He is president of the Conference of European Rabbis.
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