Could an Interfaith Peace Cathedral Help Save Tbilisi’s dwindling Jewish community? – India Times English News

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) – A chauffeur explosion, church bells and a Muslim call for prayer opened Sunday service at the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia, on a hot June day.

There were incense, ritual fire and sermons from a rabbi, a priest and an imam. The service closed with the opening of a Torah, just off Haifa, in the synagogue, one of three houses of worship under one roof in an idealistic, perhaps interreligious association.

It was the climax of a remarkable weekend for the non-descript former warehouse that now houses the Peace Cathedral. The first services were held in both the mosque, the mosque as Salaam, and the synagogue, Beit Kesset Hashalom.

In a moment of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Georgia, Peace Cathedral stands as a symbol of possibility. Sometimes called the Peace Project, it is Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili’s response to a series of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic incidents in this former Soviet republic in 2013–2015.

Songulashvili, Metropolitan Bishop of Georgia’s Evangelical Baptist Church and professor of comparative theology at Ilya State University in Tbilisi, called it his way of “responding to ugliness with beauty”. He has converted his church into a building housing places of worship for all three Abrahamic religions. In addition to the mosque, synagogue and church, there is a space for interfaith dialogue, as well as an interfaith library for children and adults.

Songulashvili said, “Through our fellowship… it is my hope that we will learn from each other’s spiritual experiences as we broaden our understanding of each other as human beings, as believers and as members of this good planet.” Inspire to create.”

At the same time, it is providing a space for Tbilisi’s budding liberal Jewish community.

“If you’re interested in Judaism, it’s really hard to find anything other than Chabad and [Orthodox] synagogues,” said Veronica Ferdman, who is involved in various Jewish organizations in Tbilisi, where she is a student.

The Jewish community in Georgia dates back 2,600 years. Rich and layered, it is currently fragmented and declining, as Jews have moved to Israel in waves since the 1970s. Although the Jewish population numbered 80,000, with five synagogues in Tbilisi alone, there are now about 3,000 Jews left in Georgia, and the synagogue community is increasingly frail and aging.

People gather at the opening of the Torah scrolls at the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi. (via Nano Sarlishvili/JTA)

The emerging non-Orthodox community, led by young Georgians and some immigrants from England and the United States, is not accepted by the two remaining conservative congregations or by the local Chabad – the outpost of the Hasidic movement around the world. The Orthodox community did not participate in the opening of the Peace Cathedral Torah and did not participate in Songulashvili’s work.

At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, bordering the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, Georgia has faced constant threat of invasion by Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians, and others for its strategic location. Like Ukraine, Georgia has EU and NATO aspirations, and it is watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with trepidation.

According to popular belief, the Jews arrived in Georgia in the 6th century BC after the fall of the First Temple. Jews have a prominent place in the founding legend of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which focuses on the arrival of Christianity to the region through a Jewish woman. Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, they are proud Georgians, with their own traditions and customs. Sephardic influence came much later, in the 17th century through the Ottoman Empire, and Ashkenazi Jews from Russia arrived only in the 19th century.

Georgians take pride in their embrace of the country’s Jewish community and celebrate a history that is notable for the absence of ugly outbreaks of antisocial violence that typically occur in the region. But Rann Gidor, whose term as Israel’s ambassador to Georgia ended in early July, worries that growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Georgia could end the warm relations Jews share with their neighbors.

The Georgian Great Synagogue, built in the 1800s, and used by Tbilisi’s Jewish community to this day. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In 2013, hooligans vandalized Hanukkah menorah lighting in a public square. witness of one 2018 murder of Georgian Jewish human rights activist Remember the anti-Semitic abuses being shouted by the attackers. Jewish children no longer feel comfortable walking around wearing kippahs, he said, and over the past two years, senior pastors in the Georgian Orthodox Church—the country’s dominant religion—have called Ghidor an “apparently anti-heroic” and uploaded them to YouTube. has done.

Although he doesn’t think the problem can’t be managed at the moment, “if the trajectory holds up, it will be an issue in 10 years’ time.”

Gidor has called Songulashvili’s project “brave” and during his tenure, the Israeli embassy has helped to financially support the Peace Cathedral.

Established in 1867 as Tbilisi’s First Baptist Church, Peace Cathedral serves as the mother church of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. Under Songulashvili, it has repeatedly taken unpopular stances in support of women and oppressed minorities, making the oppression worse. They have appointed women to serve as deacons, ministers and bishops, and they have provided hospitality and refuge to Muslim communities. He also embraces the LGBTQ+ community in a country where that support can be a death sentence.

His ideas have come at a cost. Songulashvili, once Archbishop of the Baptist Church of Georgia, was demoted to the Metropolitan Bishop of Tbilisi in 2013 for his stance against homophobia and Islamophobia.

Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin and Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili hug in Peace Cathedral. (via Nano Sarlishvili / JTA)

In his trademark sandals, with a long white beard and hair pulled back into a ponytail, Bishop bears a striking resemblance to Dumbledore, the avuncular wizard in the Harry Potter films. He calls himself “crazy” for his positions and seeks out like-minded “crazy people”. He was thrilled to find Gregor Hohberg, a pastor in Germany who had pioneered a similar model, called the . is referred to as With Muslim and Jewish partners in Berlin at the House of One, 2011,

The Peace Cathedral and the House of One are working closely together: it was the House of One that provided the Torah brought in by Rabbi Golan ben-Chorin, a Reformed Rabbi in Haifa, who heads the Israel Associate of the House of One. Which is called the Garden. one of.

“What we are seeing is no ordinary act,” said Ben-Chorin, referring to the Peace Cathedral during his sermon. “It’s a vision of a better world.”

Lela Sitsushvili is also among those working to preserve Georgia’s Jewish heritage. A curator of the National Gallery in Tbilisi, trained at the State Hermitage Museum in Russia (one of the largest art museums in the world) and a Georgian Jew raised during Soviet times, he is uniquely qualified for the job. He wrote his dissertation on Jewish Georgian Shalom Kobashvili, a self-taught artist who painted memories of the Jewish community from his childhood. Now saving what is left.

He is one of the six caretakers, or shamshim, of the Torah at Beit Knesset Hashalom in the Peace Cathedral. Together, they are now working to write a charter for the synagogue, setting out how it will be used.

Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi houses a church, synagogue and mosque in an old warehouse. (via Nano Sarlishvili/JTA)

“This is an incredible opportunity to be a part of this miracle,” said Sitsushvili, who also attended the Shabbat-ending Havdala service the night before the opening of the Torah – the first such service to be held in a synagogue. Her family used to attend Orthodox gatherings during the holidays. “It’s a dream to be a part of such an unusual model.”

One of the shamans is Katie Chikviladze, who, like many young people in Georgia, lost his connection to his family’s Jewish traditions during the decades of Soviet repression. His maternal grandfather was a Georgian rabbi, but he and his great-grandmother died in the early 1930s in the Holodomor, or Great Famine, a catastrophe created by Stalin. Chikviladze knew little about his past until he participated in the Taglit-Birthrite Israel Tour and got his first taste of Jewish customs, customs, and practice.

“It was like a wave hit me,” she said.

Today, she is the director of Hillel Tbilisi and, like Sitsushvili, she feels she has a mission in Georgia’s Jewish community. She plans to stay instead of moving to Israel, as most of her Jewish peers are doing. Until the construction of the Peace Cathedral, the local chapter of Hillel International—which runs centers for young Jews in American universities and cities around the world—has been one of the few ways of Jewish expression for those who did not meet Jewish definitions. Halacha, or identification under Jewish law, followed by the Orthodox congregation.

A week before the arrival of the Torah, a group of students had gathered on Lake Lisi in front of the capital. Round of khachapuri, a classic Georgian flaky pastry filled with cheese, was set up picnic-style with beverages. After some hanging out, he, led by Katie and her husband, Misha Grishashvili, formed a circle among the trees for a musical sergeant service with their young son and daughter. He concluded, as Jews do around the world, with congratulations shova tovi“Have a nice week,” is sung in Hebrew, English and Georgian (“Ketili Quira”), before they move towards their cars as storm clouds threaten.

Veronica Ferdman with fellow members of Georgian Hillel at Lake Lisi. (Johanna Ginsberg/via JTA)

Among the students was Ferdman, whose grandfather worked for the Jewish Agency. She is active in several Jewish organizations, and hopes that the influx of Jewish youth from Belarus and Ukraine – either fleeing war or Belarus’ authoritarian government – ​​will help the Georgian liberal Jewish community organize itself more efficiently. She plans to move to Israel, but thinks she will eventually return to Georgia.

Ferdman is hopeful of Songulashvili’s project, but is wary and worries about what it will do to the fabric of the local Jewish community. “We’ll see,” that’s all she would say.

As soon as the Sunday service in the church ended, the doors of the cathedral opened. A prayer shawl in the hand of the Torah Shamshim was on a table just outside. Ben-Chorin chanted several verses, and then withdrew the scroll from its metal Sephardic case. Shamshim scrolled in a procession through the church, past the mosque and into the synagogue, while the matter passed among the wider community. For the few Christians and Muslims present, this was the first time they had seen the Torah.

“This whole ceremony – it was like a dream you didn’t want to wake up [from], It went straight to the spirit,” said Mustafa Shaheen, a Muslim House of One supporter from Berlin who had never met a rabbi or seen Torah before. “We are seeing that all different people share the same idea, Jews, Christians and Muslims: peace.”

Ted Jonas, one of Shamashim, an expatriate from Atlanta, Georgia, finds the project fascinating. “They have integrated or exposed themselves to other religions and feel they need not fear,” he said after the service.

Salome Kumalashvili, a young Christian woman who attended the inauguration, said of the Peace Cathedral, “I think it’s amazing that people of different faiths try to talk to each other and be friends.” But he admitted that Songulashvili is an outsider. “Well, Georgia is a conservative [Christian] It’s probably weird for the country, and most Georgians,” she said. “But I find it very kind.”

Even if the parishioners turn away, Songulashvili will stick to his principles, and his wisdom that “I’m not the only madman out there.”

He continued, “I still believe in God and in humanity. Without these, I don’t think I can continue to live in this country.”