A Triple Play for Monotheism

Students visit three houses of worship and observe Russian faith in action
Posted Sunday, March 16, 2003; 2:10 a.m.

Moscow - A group of women pray Salaat al-Asr, or the afternoon prayer, from the upstairs balcony of the Cathedral Mosque. PHOTO: Meital Hershkowitz

MOSCOW - For most of the class, morning began with a pilgrimage to The Breakfast, a much-hailed tradition at the Renaissance Hotel. Omelets, fried sausage, and fresh fruit lured early risers still operating on Eastern Standard Time. Others, some of whom had experienced the rougher side of Moscow nightlife on Friday, did not partake.

The day promised to be filling nonetheless, featuring a trifecta of worship services with Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Russian Orthodox.

Bellies empty or full, students walked with Andrei Zolotov to the Maryina-Roshcha Synagogue, the local Lubavitch house of worship. There, security guards scrutinized the students entering the lavish building of polished marble and Doric columns. The three-year-old edifice, which houses the largest Jewish community center in Europe, stands on the site of another synagogue destroyed by arsonists shortly after the fall of Communism.

The ground floor bustled with men in prayer shawls and small children underfoot. Dozens of men stomped on the ground and banged on tables as the Torah portion, which mentioned Amalek, the quintessential enemy of the Jews, was read. The banging symbolized the stamping out of the origin of evil. The sparse perimeter of women peering from the balcony remained relatively subdued.

BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg, a regular at Saturday services, told students that since he arrived in Moscow 1991 he has seen a decline in anti-Semitism. When he first arrived, Jews were secretive about attending services for fear they would lose their job or university enrollment. Today, he said, a substantial religious revival has brought many Jews back to regular worship and the faith back to prominence. Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin attended services at this synagogue and lit the menorah, symbolizing official acceptance of Judaism.

At a smaller synagogue next door, a group of Bukharan Jews, who observe the Sephardic tradition, took turns reading from the Torah. Students saw a familiar face among those surrounding the scrolls. Professor Ari Goldman was invited to say a blessing over a portion of the Torah. In turn, a rabbi blessed him and his family and thanked God for Goldman's survival of the ordeal of international air travel. The men's floor was also crowded but, excepting the female members of the class, only one woman was spotted in attendance.

Over a lunch of salads, beef stew and oranges, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, blessed wine, then told the students about issues concerning his congregation, including a recent attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church to instill religious instruction in public schools. He also described the vast social service network of day care and soup kitchens the synagogue runs and his rise to a leadership role in the Moscow congregation at the age of 26.

At the end of the meal, Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar, spiritual leader of the Russian Jews, joined the class. Lazar, who sits on Putin's Council for Cooperation with Religious Organizations, said he questioned the tendency of some new religious movements in Russia to misrepresent themselves. In particular, he singled out Jews for Jesus, comparing their proselytizing to Jews as Jews to bottling Pepsi and calling it Coca-Cola. The case for religious freedom of this group was not discussed.

After the meeting, students braved a long, treacherous walk to the Cathedral Mosque. At the 99-year-old mosque, the group headed straight upstairs to meet with Dr. Farid Asadullin, an external affairs executive of the mosque, who told students that Muslims in Russia observed their faith for centuries in mosques and tents until suppressed by the Soviet regime. Yet this historic mosque was never closed during Soviet rule.

"Today the church-state relationship is the best Muslims have had," Asadullin said, through Andrei Zolotov, who was translating. He spoke, however, of what he said was "a disease called Islamaphobia with which the whole world is sick."

Students soon headed to the prayer service. Men and women alike removed theirshoes, and the women climbed stairs leading to the balcony, where, again, women worshippers were outnumbered by the men sitting downstairs.

Members of the class were then presented with their first choice since breakfast: remain at the mosque; experience Vespers at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church; or return to the hotel and risk arousing the Lord's wrath, Goldman said.

Those who chose to go to church saw a building that was peach-colored on the outside and candle-lit within. Beneath a wall of icons, priests chanted and more than 100 women clustered together, bowing and crossing themselves. Some kissed the icons while others lit candles.

Rows of the women waited in line for confession. When each reached her turn, she would whisper in the priest's ear and then kneel before a Bible. The priest extended a strip of his purple vestment over one woman's head and blessed her to receive Communion on the following day. Each woman then stood, kissed the Gospel and rejoined the bulk of the congregation. Only a handful of men were in attendance.

Students walking back to the hotel from Vespers caught sight of a breaking news event: several dozen protestors holding signs and shouting outside an apartment building. One picketer explained in broken English that the group was upset about city plans to replace the housing with a huge garage.

Despite the promise by teaching assistant Manya Brachear of a wakeup call at 6 a.m. the following morning, many members of the class left for an excursion to a local bathhouse where they disrobed and called it a day.

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