Completed in 1906, after construction was stalled multiple times by the tsarist authorities, Moscow’s Choral Synagogue remains one of Russian Jewry’s most impressive works of architecture. During the Soviet era, it was one of very few synagogues permitted to function at all. Benyamin Goldschmidt, whose father became the congregation’s rabbi in 1993—only two years after the end of Communism—reminisces about bearing witness to the revival of Judaism in the city:
Even as a young child, when I passed through the towering white columns of the Choral Synagogue and then entered through the huge wooden doors—which I couldn’t open without the assistance of an adult—I knew it was a building of great historical significance. After all, it was not just a synagogue. It was the only overt symbol of Judaism that had withstood 70 years of Communism. From Lenin to Stalin to Gorbachev, the synagogue’s doors remained open—mostly for show, by government decree, but open nevertheless.
During the first few years, there was always suspicion among Jews—everyone suspected everyone else of collaborating with the KGB. . . . When my father first [arrived], a man walked over to him and pointed out someone in the shul, saying, “Young rabbi, be careful. That man is part of the KGB!” As soon as he left, the other man came running to my father and said, “Rabbi, the man you just spoke to is a KGB informant!” I asked my father whom he believed, and he said, “I believed them both.” Even long after the KGB stopped tracking every person who walked into the building, its long shadow remained.
In the main sanctuary, there used to be a closed wooden box with a few seats. They say it was built for Golda Meir, who visited the synagogue as the ambassador to the Soviet Union of the newly created state of Israel. The authorities didn’t want her to mingle with local Jews, so they had to build her a separate section in the shul, which was later used by other foreign visitors. Meir’s visit wasn’t publicized, yet the silent Jews of Moscow spread the news by word of mouth, one by one. When she arrived, 50,000 Jews had congregated, waiting to catch a glimpse of her. Meir later said it was one of the two most important moments of her life.
On one occasion, Goldschmidt recalls, a congregant hushed him for speaking during prayers, and an elderly woman came to his defense: “Don’t you dare shush the child! I waited for 70 years for children once again to make noise in shul.”