Lines Form for Faith, Not Bread : Religion: Hundreds of Russian Jewish immigrants wait in shifts to celebrate Yom Kippur at a newly established West Hollywood synagogue.


For Boris Minevich and hundreds of other Jewish immigrants from Russia who have settled in Southern California, standing in lines of up to two blocks long Wednesday brought back memories of their homeland.

But there was a key difference: "In Russia they wait in line for food. Here we wait for synagogue," Minevich said. The Chabad Russian Synagogue in West Hollywood, formerly an automobile repair shop, attracted about 1,400 people who gathered throughout the day to celebrate Yom Kippur, a 24-hour period of fasting, prayer and repentance considered the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar.

But the crowds overwhelmed both synagogue and fire officials, who were forced to usher people out of the building and into the streets where sheriff's deputies cordoned off traffic and divided the worshipers into shifts.

"No one was prepared for this," said Mihail Fuksman as he tried to keep people from blocking the sidewalk outside the synagogue. "It's both good and bad."

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Herbert Lombard said officials from the synagogue, which opened three weeks ago, had not obtained occupancy permits and fire safety equipment.

But because of the significance of the event, Lombard said, he allowed the synagogue to remain open if passages were kept clear and only 600 worshipers were allowed in at a time.

Also known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which ended at sundown Wednesday, concludes the High Holy Days that began with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

During the fasting period, Jews acknowledge their sins of the past year and pray for repentance. They also pray for their deceased parents, many of whom were killed during the Holocaust.

Many of those in attendance had been meeting regularly in a tiny storefront a few blocks from the new synagogue on Santa Monica Boulevard. For special holiday services, they had rented an assembly hall at a nearby park.

The purchase of the former automobile repair shop seemed to have sparked a renewed religious interest, said Boris Gorbis, senior vice president of the synagogue.

Gorbis said the worshipers are proud that the synagogue was purchased with donations they raised. In addition, he said, about 40 families have raised $770,000 to pay for earthquake reinforcement and renovations.

"It's very important because most of these people were raised in Russia thinking that anything having to do with religion is poison," he said.

Fuksman, who was instrumental in organizing the fund-raising drive, said he and other synagogue officials had not been able to get permits in time for the services.

Inside the large pink building, worshipers stood along the walls and sat in folding chairs around a small platform where the rabbi and cantors led them in prayers.

Those lined up outside talked about the weather and reforms taking place in the Soviet Union.

Despite the whirlwind of change, some said they have no interest in returning. They said they do not trust the Soviet government despite the promises of new religious freedom and democracy.

"Things in Russia are too shaky," said Michael Myaskovsky, who arrived in America 10 years ago and hopes his brother can immigrate sometime next month.

Minevich said living conditions for most people in the Soviet Union have not changed. "The changes there are only on paper, not in real life."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World