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May 8, 2008 By:
Ben G. Frank, Jewish Exponent Feature
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The Amur River

 

Of all the cities in the Russian Far East, Kharbarovsk, 5,331 miles from Moscow, gets great reviews from tourists. No wonder -- it is by far the nicest city in this part of Siberia, and is often called "Paris-on-the-Amur."

Because they're only 40 miles from China, travelers can take river cruises on the Amur River, shop in fine stores on wide avenues, stop off at the Regional History Museum and walk around the huge square with its statue of Lenin still standing (though ironically, electronic, capitalist advertising screens flash right behind the monument of the founder of the defunct Communist empire).

The pleasant gift stores are found on Muraviev-Amursky Street, named after Count Nikolai Muraviev-Amursky. The street itself features old-world architecture, though the mall is not as chic as the one in Moscow, near Red Square. The view of the Amur from Komsomolskaya Square, now called Cathedral Square, is striking.

Throughout Siberia are many statues of Count Muraviev-Amursky, the region's governor general, who believed that it was Russia's destiny to develop Siberia's Far East. In Khabarovsk, his monument is positioned on the river's promontory.

Don't forget to visit the huge Soviet Memorial to the Dead Heroes of the Red Army in World War II. While some guide books call the monument "bombastic," it does pay homage to the nearly 30 million Russians who died in the "Great Patriotic War," among them about 1.5 million Jewish citizens and several hundred thousand Russian Jewish soldiers. Throughout the city, aged veterans proudly display their battle ribbons on jackets and blouses.

Khabarovsk, a major stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad, is home to about 12,000 Jews living among 700,000 residents, although the metro area contains about 1.3 million people. This city is the gateway by car or train to the famous, still-in-existence Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region, which is only three hours away.

Founded in 1858, at the confluence of the Amur and the tributary, Ussuri, Khabarovsk was first set up as a Russian military outpost when the left (or north) bank of the Amur passed from China to Russia. It was named for Yerofet Khabarov, a Cossack who had reconnoitered the area in the mid-17th century. The town began to grow when the railroad from Vladivostok arrived in 1897, and then the Trans-Siberian showed up from the west in 1916.

Bring good walking shoes, for this is a city of hills, with the main business and city center located on a plateau above the Amur.

Jews arrived here in the 19th century, as forced laborers and exiles seeking their fortunes in fur trading and gold mining, though today, they are mostly physicians, teachers and business professionals.

For 80 years, there was no synagogue here, and yet Judaism survived. The Communists closed the building in 1926 and turned it into an art museum. Only in the 1960s did the Jewish community dare to try to open a house of worship. Mired in Soviet bureaucracy, the tide turned in the mid-1990s after communism fell.

In 1999, the Jewish community received city approval to build a synagogue, and so today, it has a beautiful Jewish Religious Cultural Center and Synagogue, which opened in 2004.

The center's gold dome can be seen for miles. Inside, the congregation enjoys a kosher restaurant, a mikveh, a prayer hall that seats 250, a sports room, classrooms and a youth center.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sponsors a welfare center and many activities dealing with improving the lives of the elderly, as well as the education of children. The Joint, as JDC is affectionately called throughout the world, steps in to help seniors especially with medication, as well as health and home care.

The Joint's educational projects help combat assimilation, for, as Jewish leader Mark Arshinsky put it, 63 percent of the community is intermarried.

To give readers an idea of distances in the vast Russian Far East, Khabarovsk (a 13-hour train ride to Vladivostok) is near the Pacific Ocean. This last stretch of the Trans-Siberian is 478 miles. If you are looking for a trial run on the railroad, pick the Khabarovsk-Vladivostok route.

Almost forgot: If you're planning a winter trip, get out the heavy clothing: That time of year, the temperature range is from -10 F to -50 F.

But it's May now; summer comes soon, and it's highly recommended traveling season. Believe it or not, it can actually get hot in Khabarovsk.

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