European, Israeli Jews gather undisturbed in predominantly Muslim city in Russia

KAZAN, Russia (JTA) — Hundreds of Israeli and European Jews convened in the capital of the predominantly Muslim Russian state of Tatarstan for an annual Jewish music festival as well as a Jewish learning Limmud FSU conference.

The two events, which coincide with a third — the Sept. 4 European Day of Jewish Culture — kicked off Friday evening on a large stage that city authorities erected on a central pedestrian street in Kazan for concerts by  Simcha, a local klezmer band, and Shouk, an Israeli ensemble that came for the Limmud FSU event.

Since 2012, the city of Kazan 450 miles east of Moscow has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.

At a time when comparable Jewish events are confined to indoors and heavily guarded spaces across Western Europe for fear of terrorism, Friday’s event was unfenced and unguarded. Thousands of passersby huddled near the stage, paused and danced to the klezmer and Israeli music, including the song “I am Always Jewish” by Simcha, which was founded in 1989 when other Jewish cultural activities invited negative reactions on the part of communist authorities.

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The Limmud FSU event this year emphasizes Kazan’s role as a station on the path of the so-called Tehran Children — the name used to refer to a group of Polish Jewish children, mainly orphans, who escaped the Nazi German occupation of Poland via Kazan and Samarkand in what is today Uzbekistan and onto pre-state Israel via Tehran.

The Limmud FSU’s program this year featured a commemoration for Yanush Ben Gal, a survivor from the Tehran Children group who grew up to be one of the Israel Defense Forces’ most highly-esteemed generals for his success in halting the advance of far larger Syrian forces on the Golan Heights. He died in February at the age of 80 and was scheduled to return to Kazan Friday.

Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler and Ben Gal’s widow, Avital, held a commemoration service for him at the Great Synagogue of Kazan Friday. The city currently has 10,000 Jews.

“Beyond being a model for coexistence, one needs to appreciate that Kazan has traditionally been a haven for Jews and still is,” Chesler said of the decision to turn Limmud conference into an annual event here. “This means that we have a commitment to this place.”