(Chabad.org) In neither name nor origin, Togliatti is not your typical Russian city. Its moniker evoking more Italian countryside than Communist-era river port, the city itself was built in 1964 after waters from the Volga River inundated the city of Stavropol during the construction of the Kuybyshev Dam and Hydroelectric Station and Kuybyshev Reservoir.
As such, the city, unlike most throughout the former Soviet Union, has no historic synagogue to speak of. But thousands of Jews, who primarily work at the AvtoVAZ automobile plant, do make their homes in Togliatti, named after Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti.
“A lot of cities have old synagogues but this is a new city,” said Rabbi Meir Fischer, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Togliatti. “It doesn’t have Jewish roots.”
When the community recently opened a new Jewish community center, everyone rejoiced.
“This is not just a building,” said Sofiya Surpin, 54, originally from Ukraine. “This is a big deal because we never had a [comfortable] place where Jews can celebrate holidays together.”
Called the Shimshon and Sarah House in memory of Fischer’s grandparents, the center also serves the needs of Jews in surrounding cities.
“Until now, the Jews of the city had to suffice with a few small buildings,” said Fischer. “From now on, the new center will allow us to not only continue our activities, but to expand them as well.”
Local resident Moshe Shveitz helped purchase the large campus spanning more than 12 acres and located in a resort area of town. The 43,000 square foot building contains a day school, kindergarten, synagogue, restaurant, 15 guest rooms, kosher store and classrooms for seminars and camps.
Since its official opening ceremony last month, the center has been bustling with a new camp session every 10 days geared to students, families or kids from around the area.
“Approximately 200 children from Togliatti, Samara and other cities in the area and beyond participated,” said Fischer. “The opening has already produced fruit, thank G-d, in strengthening the area’s Jewish education.”
The inaugural weekend began with Shveitz affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost of the hall and the opening of the Mei Sarah ritual bath by Fischer’s uncle, Rabbi Yaakov Fischer, who donated the funds necessary to build the attached facility.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the worldwide educational and social services arms of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, spent that Sabbath with the Fischers and the community ahead of a formal celebration the following day that brought together 250 locals along with Kehot Publishing House director Rabbi Yosef Friedman, Ohr Avner director Rabbi David Mondshine, Independent Education Network in Israel chairman Rabbi Avrohom Lazerson, and Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries from throughout the region.
Togliatti Mayor Sergey Andreyev and the executive vice president of AvtoVAZ, Oleg Lobanov, were also on hand for the celebration at which Fischer’s father, primary donor Rabbi Shmuel Fischer, cut the ceremonial ribbon draped across the building’s walkway.
“Any help that the city can give the Jews of the city and the rabbi, we will do wholeheartedly and very happily,” said Andreyev.
Krinsky spoke about that the miraculous transformation of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union since the fall of the Iron Curtain, saying he was impressed with “the site of Jews proud in their Judaism and living active Jewish lives, full and rich with … the Torah and its commandments.”
Shmuel Fischer took the opportunity to publicly bless his son and daughter-in-law, Devora Fischer, to see the fruits of their labor.
“Please G-d we will soon need to add on and build an extension to the new center, because the current building will be too small to contain the needs of the local Jews,” said Fischer.
Shveitz remarked that “every stone and floor of the new building is full of the dedication and self-sacrifice of the Fischers to every Jew in Togliatti. We all feel a part of the Fischer family that came here to give its all for us.”