Sochi Ready To Welcome Jewish Guests


Sochi Ready To Welcome Jewish Guests

by Rena Greenberg

February 4, 2014

As millions around the world watch national pride on display at the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia this Friday evening, Chabad of Sochi will be marking an olympian challenge of its own. Thousands of Jews—as many as 20,000—will have the opportunity to celebrate Jewish identity as they participate at Shabbat dinners and services hosted by Sochi’s Chabad center.

Anticipating the needs that Jewish visitors—among them athletes, journalists and spectators—will bring with them during the two-week period of the Games, Rabbi Ari and Chani Edelkopf, directors of Chabad of Sochi since 2001, have been working at an intense pace to be ready for the rush. Unique to this challenge is that unlike other host cities of past Olympic games, like London and Vancouver that have large Jewish communities, Sochi has but one rabbi in town, and the distance between various sports arenas is considerable.

With the guidance of Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Edelkopfs have recruited 12 rabbis in training to serve as chaplains; five Jewish information centers—in addition to the permanent Chabad center in Sochi—have been set up in strategic areas of the Olympic village, and Chabad has established three centers in each of the major hubs in Sochi: Sochi Central Synagogue located at Alpiskaya 90A; Krasna Palanya at the Marriott Hotel and one in the Olympic Park.

“Three of the centers will cater just to athletes,” says Edelkopf. “All of them will have Judaic materials available in multiple languages and give visitors a chance to meet the rabbi, pray and seek spiritual guidance in the midst of all the chaos.”

These Winter Games—the first to take place in Russia since the fall of the USSR, will serve as a centerpiece of President Vladmir Putin’s effort to present a moderate, peaceful image for the country. To that effect, Sochi, a sprawling city of 400,000 on the northeast shore of the Black Sea hasn’t received so much of a facelift as a full-body makeover. Since the announcement seven years ago that Sochi would host the Olympics, Russia has poured an astronomical $51 billion—more than any other host city in Olympic history—into new roads and railways, hotels, sports centers and more.

Sochi’s modest Jewish community of 3,000 has benefitted from the new infrastructure and in recent months the Sochi shul, housed in a three-story Jewish Community Center building, has undergone extensive renovations, and the synagogue received two new Torah scrolls donated by Russian Jewish benefactors.

Unlike the better-known Jewish population centers to the east, Sochi has no old synagogues or historical Jewish presence. The Black Sea resort city, a favorite Putin vacation spot, was known as the place where Joseph Stalin vacationed in the 1930s. During Stalin’s reign, the city, also known as the “Florida of Russia,” underwent more reconstruction as a fashionable resort area, with the active participation of many Jews who numbered among civic leaders and engineers. Today’s Jewish community remains small and comprises of many professionals who moved to Sochi for business opportunity.

Edelkopf notes that while there are cities in Russia with much larger Jewish populations that don’t have a rabbi, Chabad headquarters appointed him to Sochi in 2001 as an emissary due to its popularity as a business destination and “because many people come here on vacation from all around Russia, when they are relaxed and open, and this is the place to reach them.”

One of Edelkopf’s goals is to make sure that every Jew Chabad encounters—journalists athletes or visitors, will know how to connect with Chabad resources back in his or her hometown. Chabad’s team is utilizing Chabadlink, a website and app designed as a service to make connections between Jews no matter where they may be. They have also set up their own website, JewishSochi.com providing information on Shabbat meals, kosher, synagogue services and more.

Chabad has planned their own opening ceremony of sorts, with a reception to welcome Jewish athletes (with an emphasis on the small Israeli delegation) and other visiting Jews. The “small and intimate” gathering will allow 150 local Jews to personally meet the athletes.

“It is important to show that we are supporting our Jewish brethren,” Edelkopf told lubavitch.com. “We are making the point that we are all connected and that any Jew has a home here with us.”

Home, he explains, will include catering at several Olympic venues where thousands of kosher meals will be served. Lectures and classes on Jewish themes will also be offered in multiple languages and open to visitors and locals.

Chabad has set up a calendar of events for out-of-town Jews throughout the Olympics which will take place from February 7-21 as well as the Paralympics to follow on March 7-16. For more information visit JewishSochi.com.

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