Amid rivalries and haggling, stunted Moscow JCC gets boost


MOSCOW — A long-planned Jewish community center slated for Moscow has received a boost.

Last month, Arkady Gaydamak signed an agreement with the religious Jewish community of Moscow, which has long sought partners to help build a multimillion-dollar community center across the street from the city’s Choral Synagogue.

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The JCC, Moscow’s second, would be an attempt to attract the large number of Moscow Jews who are secular.

Gaydamak, a business tycoon and philanthropist who made a name for himself in Israel and Russia by buying sports teams and media outlets, told JTA that construction of the 130,000 square-foot center, to be completed by the end of 2008, may top $30 million.

This week’s signing, attended by philanthropist Ronald Lauder, may jump-start the project, which for years remained mired in negotiations among international Jewish groups, leading Russian Jewish philanthropists and the Moscow Jewish community.

Almost six years ago, the city of Moscow gave the Moscow Jewish Religious Community, the group that operates the synagogue, a free lease of a nearby plot. The community group, which at the time had strong ties to the Russian Jewish Congress umbrella organization, intended to rely on the RJC’s financing in order to build the center.

Community leaders received the land — a prized spot a short distance away from the Kremlin — but the plot is untouched. It still contains a dilapidated Soviet-era red-brick school later turned into a hospital, which has not been in use for more than a decade.

The project was originally designed to bring together the Moscow community, the RJC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and private donors, and at some point the coalition also included the Jewish Agency for Israel. But constant upheaval within the RJC and rising building costs have delayed construction.

Some six months ago, the JDC and some other donors withdrew from the project, mainly due to disagreement about the ownership rights to the new center.

A senior JDC official told JTA that the group is looking for a space to build its own community center in Moscow.

Then Gaydamak, 53, stepped in.

Since last year, he has served as president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, an umbrella for Jewish religious groups.

Until last year, he was among the leading donors of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the region’s largest Jewish group.

Observers said Gaydamak joined the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities, which includes Orthodox and Reform congregations, because he no longer was satisfied with his secondary role in the federation.

Gaydamak denies this assessment, saying he joined the congress because he saw great potential in the organization.

In 2001, his funds were used to build the federation’s Marina Roscha JCC, also in Moscow.

“I’m not new to this,” he told JTA of his decision to build a new center. “Why am I doing this alone? Because no one else wants to do it,” he said.

For his contribution, Gaydamak will receive one-third of the new building for commercial purposes.

Leopold Kaimovsky, the executive director of Moscow’s religious community, said the center will include facilities for educational, social, welfare, cultural and athletic programs and a kosher restaurant.

The eagerness of the synagogue to have its own community center — that will inevitably compete with the Chabad-run center — stems not only from the groups’ rivalry.

Many Jewish leaders agree that without a modern community center separate from the synagogue, the community has little chance to attract secular Jews.

“To our Jews, a synagogue is associated only with religion, and many Jews could not find a place for themselves here,” said Adolph Shayevich, the synagogue leader and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis. “In the new center, I hope, all Jews of Moscow will find a place for themselves.”

Arkady Gaydamak’s daughter Katya agreed.

“Such a stunning synagogue should have a place like that,” Katya Gaydamak said.

Like all three of Gaydamak’s children, she was born and raised in Paris after Gaydamak left the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

Katya, a jewelry designer who divides her time between Paris and London, said the new center has special meaning to Moscow Jews who grew up here, such as her father.

Gaydamak would tell his children what the neighborhood of the Choral Synagogue meant to local Jews during Soviet times, she recalled. “Dad told us how it was to be Jewish in Moscow back then. Now younger Jews here are taking too much for granted.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the street next to the synagogue was the site of mass gatherings of Jews.

Defying the ever-present KGB agents, members of the community celebrated Jewish holidays, sang, danced and exchanged news about the emigration status of their friends.

Back then, the street and synagogue were referred to by some Moscow Jews as Gorka, or the Hill, a reference to the street’s steepness.

Katya Gaydamak said the new center should revive some of the old-time memories associated with the site.

At least, those involved in the project say, those memories will be preserved in the center’s name, Na Gorke, or On the Hill.