About a dozen men prayed recently at Darkei Shalom, a Hasidic Jewish synagogue in the working-class neighborhood of Otradnoye in north Moscow.
Except for the Star of David on its squat tower, the building is as plain and utilitarian as the linoleum on the floor. It sits — along with a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque — on a leafy stretch of land surrounded by towering apartment blocks.
Dovid Karpov has been the rabbi at the Darkei Shalom synagogue since it was built 15 years ago. Like many people in his congregation, Karpov grew up in a Soviet-era family that was not religious. He says he had to learn his faith for himself.
Dovid Karpov has been the rabbi at the Darkei Shalom synagogue since it was built 15 years ago. Like many people in his congregation, Karpov grew up in a Soviet-era family that was not religious. He says he had to learn his faith for himself. Sergei Sotnikov/NPR
Dovid Karpov has been the rabbi here since the synagogue was built 15 years ago. He says he's fairly typical of the people who form this community: Jews who grew up in Soviet times with little connection to their religious roots. He says his family was not at all religious.
After graduating from Moscow State University, Karpov began preparing for a career in the chemical industry. It was about that time, he says, that he started to get interested in his roots as a Jew.
Instead of learning Judaism as a child, among his family, Karpov had to find it for himself. He says he's familiar with Reform and Conservative Judaism, because much of his extended family now lives in the United States.
But for him, Karpov says there was only one authentic choice: the Lubavitch movement — the ultra-Orthodox strain of Hasidic Judaism that began in Eastern Europe and now has its strongest presence in Brooklyn.
Karpov says his congregation has grown to several hundred, partly because people who are part of the community are rearing their children to be religious, but also because people with little or no religious background are seeking out the synagogue.
Margarita Yeksler, whose Jewish name is Rachel, says she became part of the community very gradually, over a period of about 10 years.
"It seemed to me that my life was empty, but I felt that there was something in the world," Yeksler says. "And then I started to become [a] religious Jew."
Yeksler went to an American Jewish college in Moscow; she's now the secretary at the synagogue.
Some of those who are drawn to the synagogue are not Jews at all, either by heritage or religion.
Vanya Makunin says he grew up in a family where people believed in God, but had no organized religious affiliation. He graduated from the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute with an electronics degree but says he didn't pursue it because he was making plenty of money as a DJ in Moscow's glitzy club scene.
"I had no problems with money," Makunin says. "I had no problems with time to spend. From a material point of view, it was perfect."
But Makunin, too, felt he needed to do something more than just taking care of his material wants.
"When I do everything for myself, in fact I do nothing. When I do something for [the] Almighty One, I do something serious," he says. "And then on that point, I understand that I must do something more, in religious direction maybe."
Makunin is now studying to convert to Judaism, and says he hopes one day to be a rabbi.
Karpov has a way of illustrating what it is like to learn one's religion, as it were, from scratch. To prepare for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, he practiced blowing the shofar, the musical instrument made from a ram's horn.
When he first began trying to blow it, he could do nothing. Although people told him how to do it, he says, there was no way to master it without trying it himself again and again.