Back to shul, 25 years and a Soviet prison sentence later

Edelstein returns to Riga's only synagogue.

Yuli Edelstein 248.88 (photo credit: )
Yuli Edelstein 248.88
(photo credit: )
It took Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein 25 years to get a second aliya at the Peitav Synagogue in Riga. Barely a month after the last time he prayed in the Latvian capital's only shul, in 1984, Edelstein was arrested by Soviet security services and thrown into prison for three years. "We were vacationing on the Baltic coast with fellow refuseniks, learning Hebrew together. One day a local refusenik from Riga said, 'Let's go to synagogue.' Both of us had started becoming religious," Edelstein said last week. He was just 26 years old when he entered the Peitav Synagogue in early August 1984 to pray with a dozen elderly Jews, who viewed him at first with suspicion. "They were checking me out as I walked in. They wanted to see if I knew how to pray, how to put on a tallit. They wanted to see if this 26-year-old was a crazy person or a spy. "When they saw I knew what I was doing, one came to me very formally and said, 'We are considering giving you an aliya to the Torah.' So I went up to the Torah." Later that month, back in Moscow, Edelstein's home was searched by state security agents, allegedly looking for narcotics. He was arrested on September 4, and was only released in May 1987. "The next time I went up to the Torah was three years later, at the Great Synagogue in Moscow. There I said birkat hagomel [the blessing giving thanks for surviving danger] for the first time." On Wednesday, Edelstein stood once again on the bima of the Peitav Synagogue, but the circumstances were quite different. "This time, at the dedication of the reconstructed synagogue, you had the president of the state, the prime minister, the ministers of transportation and culture, the mayor, the deputy president of parliament. It's a different situation from those handful of elderly people in the synagogue," he said on the phone from Riga. Edelstein was in the Latvian capital not only for the synagogue dedication, but also for talks on Latvia-Israel and EU-Israel relations, stopping the Iranian nuclear program, restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish assets, and other issues. "I think the most painful issue raised in the discussions, which I hope won't hurt relations between the two countries, is the coming [Soccer World Cup qualifying] game between Israel and Latvia to be played in Ramat Gan on September 5. The Latvian ministers insisted Latvia would win. I didn't agree."