Leading Moscow yeshiva razed in an accidental blaze

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MOSCOW — A Moscow yeshiva, one of the city's leading Jewish facilities, was completely destroyed last week by a fire that was believed to have been caused by an electrical short circuit.

"It's a tragic day for Russian Jews," said Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt.

The Jewish community "has lost the biggest open Judaica library" in the former Soviet Union, he added.

The Mekor Chayim ("Source of Life") Yeshiva was popularly known as the Steinsaltz Yeshiva after its head, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the talmudic scholar and translator who has served as Russia's spiritual leader since 1995.

After the Jewish community faced 70 years of persecution under Communist rule, this yeshiva was the first official Jewish institution to open in the former Soviet Union during the period of openness instituted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

During the past three years, the yeshiva served as a training ground for religious leaders and teachers who became community leaders throughout the former Soviet Union after studying there.

The single-story wooden house in the western Moscow neighborhood of Kuntsevo caught fire Friday night of last week while dozens of people were praying in the yeshiva's synagogue.

No one was injured, but the building burned to the ground.

"I'm sure the fire was not caused by arson," said Chayim Feigenberg, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Studies, which was headquartered in the yeshiva.

Yevgeny Katz, 34, who attended services on the night of the fire, said congregants tried to put out the conflagration, but "it was spreading so fast that some 30 minutes later almost nothing was left."

Worshippers managed to save a Torah scroll and some books from destruction, but the fire devoured most of the yeshiva's 5,000-volume Judaica library.

Goldschmidt said he would like to make every effort to reconstruct the library, which included volumes donated from abroad as well as books presented by Jews who were leaving Russia in the late 1980s.

Along with the educational facility and extensive library, the yeshiva was the scene of publishing activities including a monthly magazine for teachers at Jewish schools.

On Sunday, 12 participants at a religious seminar for Russia's provincial leaders held their Hebrew classes in the open air, next to the scene of the fire.

The staff took advantage of this week's record-breaking high temperatures, which hovered around 90 degrees, to spread wet, scorched books out to dry on the grass.

"We'll see if any of them can be restored," said Inna Levyant, 60, who worked as a secretary in the yeshiva.

"It's very hard to accept that we've lost this first `Jewish place' in Moscow," said David Safronov, 28, a coordinator of leadership seminars in the yeshiva's Institute for Jewish Studies.

Safronov, a professional saxophone player who graduated from the yeshiva three years ago, recalled the first Jewish gatherings there during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"Then a Passover seder would attract 200 to 300 Jews who had been yearning for such events during the `70-year winter,'" he said, referring to the period of persecution of Soviet Jewry.

The building, built some 30 years ago, formerly served as the Moscow mayor's guest house.

Feigenberg, the yeshiva's administrator, said he hoped Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a longtime Jewish sympathizer, would help find another home for the yeshiva.

In the meantime, Goldschmidt has proposed moving the yeshiva to Moscow's Great Synagogue.