Thousands from around the globe came to Russia and have been learning that Judaism there isn’t just about history
Until two weeks ago, Alberto Galante had never been to Russia. The 2018 FIFA World Cup drew him to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don, where he cheered on Mexico’s national soccer team as it advanced through the competition. While Galante, who traveled with his son and friends, was thrilled to see Mexico stun the world in its upset win over defending World Cup champion Germany, that was not the only happy surprise of his 12-day trip: He also got to see living, breathing Jewish life in Russia, which not only left him impressed, but inspired.
“It was a very spiritual experience, even though it wasn’t supposed to be,” says Galante, 49, who lives in Miami but is originally from Mexico. “I expected to see Chabad, but I didn’t expect what we experienced; it was uplifting.”
There are at least 10,000 Israelis among the 1 million soccer fans who have descended upon Russia for the World Cup, but that number does not reflect the thousands of Jewish visitors who have come from all around the world, especially from Latin America.
“We had people from New Zealand, Canada, Argentina,” says Rabbi Mordechai Weisberg, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Moscow, located in the Moscow Jewish Community Center (MJCC) in the Marina Roscha neighborhood of the capital. “People have been flocking here for kosher food, to pray, or just to spend time. They just type ‘Chabad Moscow’ into their GPS, and they are led straight here.”
They are also directed by apps released for iPhone and Android devices, and a website with all relevant Jewish tourist information, set up to orient visitors.
Weisberg met with FIFA president Gianni Infantino in the run-up to the games, sharing with him the Jewish community’s World Cup plans throughout Russia. MJCC, the seven-story heartbeat of Jewish life in Moscow, has a dedicated, multi-lingual information center for visitors, and is home to multiple kosher restaurants, including one called Shtetl. A pleasant outdoor restaurant seating area with screens showing games throughout the country has been set up on the property of the Jewish center, where fans are able to sip a kosher cappuccino while keeping up with the matches. Since the start of the games, each Shabbat has seen hundreds join for big Shabbat meals, and more than 1,000 are expected for the Shabbat before the finals.
While in Moscow, Galante and his group were able to visit the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, down the block from the MJCC, and take in a meal at the Jerusalem Restaurant—known for its rib-eye and lamb chops—on the rooftop of Chabad’s Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue in Moscow’s center.
But it was Galante’s visit to Rostov, where Mexico beat South Korea, that struck him most. “Where else do you meet a Jew who made the decision to have a brit milah at age 63?” he marvels. In Rostov, Galante met many more Mexican Jewish fans, some of whom he knew and others he didn’t.
“It’s definitely brought a lot of excitement,” says Rostov’s chief rabbi, Chaim Danzinger, who also directs Chabad of Rostov. Prior to the games, Danzinger recorded a short video welcoming Jewish visitors to the historic city that he and his family have called home for a decade. The video caught fire on social media and WhatsApp, turning him into a minor celebrity among tourists.
“People have been recognizing and coming up to me in the streets, pulling out their phones to show how they know about me.”
Rostov’s restored synagogue is just across the Don River from Rostov Arena, where the games are being played, making it a convenient stop for Jewish visitors. Galante stayed in a hotel quite a distance from the synagogue, and so on Friday night—while some 100 guests gathered for a large meal and farbrengen at the synagogue—he made kiddush in his room on wine provided to him by the rabbi. The next day, he walked an hour-and-a-half, joining others for a Shabbat meal at the rabbi’s home.
“This has been an amazing experience for our community as well,” explains Danzinger. “Here, who is usually the one who knows how to read Hebrew and pray? It is a rabbi. So it’s beautiful for our community to see a large group of Jews, regular laypeople, on their vacation, come to synagogue, put on a tallit and pray.”
Aside from Mexican Jews, Danzinger says groups have come from Brazil and Uruguay, as have Israelis, who can easily make the two-and-a-half hour flight from Israel to watch Iceland play Croatia. Rostov was for a time the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, and final home of the fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, who passed away and was buried in Rostov in 1920. Many visitors have taken advantage of their proximity to the holy site and gone to the city’s old Jewish cemetery to pray at the gravesite.
By: Dovid Margolin