Soviet-confiscated Torah scrolls are returned to Jews in Moscow

MOSCOW — Ten Torah scrolls confiscated by the Soviet regime were handed back to the Jewish community Tuesday, in what was seen as an important beginning for the return of property confiscated by the USSR during more than 70 years.

"What this says is that the Russian government has started the process of restitution," Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt said. "It's a very slow process, a process which needs encouragement from the West, from governments. And it's a process which will take a long time, and which is very necessary."

The ten Torah scrolls were among 188 Torah scrolls stored in the Moscow state archives. Some are "in wonderful shape; they look like they were just written a few days ago," Goldschmidt said. Others are beyond repair.

Hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000, other Torah scrolls are believed stored in state archives in other Russian cities, he said.

"We've started a process for the return of those Torah scrolls to the communities," the rabbi said. "But it looks like a great part of them will not be able to be used because they were held in places where there was a lot of humidity."

Goldschmidt said a separate problem exists for scrolls that are unsalvageable because the community cannot take them back and bury them as prescribed by Jewish law.

"We cannot bury them because officially the Torahs are not being returned, they are being 'lend-leased' to us ad infinitum," he said. "We cannot bury something that is being lent to us."

During the communist years, the scrolls were brought to Moscow from synagogues across the Soviet Union that were closed down.

Until now, the Jewish communities in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union saw only the beginning of the return of confiscated property, such as synagogues. Tuesday's ceremony for the first time saw the return also of property from within those synagogues.

"It's an important step," said Rabbi Ya'acov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, "because their archives and their libraries and museums are full of religious artifacts that were confiscated. These things really should be returned, so it's a good beginning." Bleich said the timing now is one of "natural evolution."

The ceremony took place at the opening of the fourth meeting of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities.

Political figures attending included Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins and Vladimir Goussinsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Among the opening remarks were words of welcome from representatives of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In a related matter, the first Sephardi synagogue in Moscow was dedicated Monday by Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron in the courtyard of the Moscow Central Synagogue.

He said the establishment of a new synagogue is important for Jews from the Caucasus Mountains who have moved to Moscow.

"If they have no center, they will assimilate," Bakshi-Doron said. "This gives them a new life, more hope for the future — and not just for them but also for the Bukharan and Georgian Jews who have arrived here. It will be one big community and ensure that they will not cease to exist."