Abkhazia video: someone has to save the synagogue
The synagogue in Sukhumi is not the most popular of places, and there are only 160 people in the culturally-charitable Shalom society in Abkhazia. For Saturday services, a maximum of ten people come to pray.
Aleksandr Malis is 34 years old and is the chairman of the organisation. He has been head foreman for a while now – he repairs the dilapidated synagogue in which much has fallen to pieces.
In 2017, synagogue-goers received a pleasant surprise: a local businessman, Evgeni Palant, replaced the old wooden-framed windows of the synagogue with plastic ones at his own expense. Now at least wind doesn’t get in through the cracks.
Aleksandr Malis – whom everyone calls Sasha – is now repairing a room in order to host online Hebrew classes. He says that there are many volunteers who help him with repairs and even a fair number of people who want to learn Hebrew.
Malis himself began coming to the synagogue only five years ago. He was born and grew up in Sukhumi. He is a hotel service manager and worked for five years as a tour guide. In-between gigs he learned a number of trades, and is now a welder, a carpenter and a builder.
In 1992 during the Georgian-Abkhaz war, local Jews left Abkhazia en masse, most of them heading for Israel. Sasha’s family was one of the few to stay in Abkhazia.
Sasha always knew about his Jewish roots, but his parents didn’t pay much attention to it. Sasha however was very interested in his history and found out a number of details about his ancestors: his grandfather on his mother’s side was a carpenter (a Polish Jew) and his great-grandfather was a blacksmith.
“When he was executed in 1937, they listed him as a ‘literate blacksmith’,” says Sasha.
Malis’ predecessors hid their Jewish roots because it was difficult to find work. His great-grandfather taught maths. However, well-to-do employers in Tsarist Russia tended not to hire Jews, but his great-grandson returned to his roots.
Prayer services are held every Saturday in the synagogue. There is no rabbi, only a local cantor who prays with the few that come to worship. Few in Abkhazia are interested in the affairs of the organisation or the synagogue, but no one gives them problems either.
There are no valuables left in the synagogue. It has been robbed on multiple occasions. There are only books on old shelves, but nobody to read them.
Aleksandr has grown out his beard, doesn’t take off his kippah, but outside the walls of the synagogue he conducts himself the same as anyone else. His name was given to him in honour of his predecessors, though he has chosen a new Jewish name for himself: Betsalel, which means, ‘in the shadow of God’.
“And that is how I conceive of myself now”, he says.