The Marina Roscha Jewish Center is simply huge. The building in which the synagogue is located contains not only the tremendous, grand sanctuary but also a library, classrooms, and a Judaica store. The Center also includes multiple other buildings, including a Chessed (Jewish Welfare) building, an elementary school, and girls’ and boys’ high schools. And there are other synagogues around the city! Wow.
The women’s section is a U-shaped balcony. It turns out that that though Shabbat started at about 6:40, we wouldn’t be starting Kabbalat Shabbat (the Friday night prayer service) until 8 pm! So much for missing part of davening!
Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but observe the people. Downstairs in the men’s section, which seats, I believe, about 300 people (maybe more?), a few dozen men were sitting in various pews, reading or talking. In the back, at a long table, a rabbi was giving a shiur to about 50 men. At first there were only a handful of women -- I guess most women in the community know not to come until later -- but eventually there were, I estimated, about 70 women in attendance (indeed, dressed to the nines) and about 200 men.
Despite the fact that this was a tremendous Chabad institution, it had a Young Israel vibe, with the kids running around, bored women in the back shmoozing, men in the back shmoozing, etc. I suppose once Orthodox Judaism reaches a critical mass of mainstream institutionalization, it starts to look the same no matter who is running it.
All the books’ translations were in Russian, and announcements were in Russian. No surprise there, but it meant there wasn’t much for me to read or do while I waited.
I was worn out and very thirsty. There weren’t many people who could talk to me because of the language barrier, and I started getting bored. As time continued passing and the shiur downstairs didn’t finish, I thought of just going home, but . . . . There would be chicken. I finally went in search of a cup of water, and was so desperate that I took a used plastic cup from a table in the back of the women’s section and just rinsed it off to use it. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
At first no one spoke to me, but eventually I managed a stilted mostly-English conversation with a woman who said she works in finance, and after a traumatic life event a few months ago, she decided to look into religion and has been coming to Chabad every night for three months, and also attends a class during the week.
I mentally divided the congregants into three categories: Lubavitch chassidim (I later found out that about 100 shluchim and their families live in Moscow. They hail from all over the world, and some are from Russia itself); “knowledgable about Judaism Russians” -- people who didn’t look chassidic but clearly had been attending synagogue here for many years and felt at home both with the community and with the rituals; and “not knowledgable about Judaism Russians,” people who were at their first service, or their 10th, or maybe their 20th, who were at various stages of familiarity with the prayer books. I liked this a lot, that all these people were praying at the same place.
Then the services started, and I was so happy I’d stayed. Directly below me somewhere was a LARGE group of children who recited the prayers with great gusto, in unison. I was moved by this -- Jewish children, praying together in public in Moscow, with raised voices. A miracle!
(The next morning I paid closer attention and discovered that it was a group of about 20-30 little boys, whose Rebbe stood nearby goading them to show enthusiasm, and apparently giving candies to whoever said “Amen” the loudest. Well played, Chabad.)
Finally the services ended and we all wound down the stairs to the ground floor where multiple tables were laid out for the Friday night meal. I asked around and found that the “English-language” meal was in “the restaurant,” an enclosed room on the side. So that’s where I went for my Friday night Shabbat meal experience in Moscow, so happy that I was about to get my chicken, and a bit nervous and curious about who I might meet at this meal.