Moscow's Butryka Prison, considered one of the most brutal penal institutions in Russia – if not the world – is now home to one of the few synagogues in the Russian prison system.
The prison opened up in late March, and is to serve, initially, at least 20 prisoners who have identified themselves as Jews. Prayers will be held initially on Shabbat and holidays.
At a ceremony inaugurating the synagogue, Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar said that the presence of a synagogue in a prison would be a great help in rehabilitating prisoners. “From his faith in G-d, a person receives joy in living. With faith, he once again becomes a full citizen,” emphasizing that the season in which the prison opened - spring, which is also the season of Passover – was symbolic becuase through religion, prisoners could redeem themselves from their lives of criminal violence and return to becoming productive members of society.
He added, humorously, that although rabbis generally like to see full synagogues, he would prefer to see this one as empty as possible.
Russian officials who were present at the ceremony also praised the opening of the prison. Colonel Viktor Dezhurov, head of the Federal Corrections Service in Moscow, said that the synagogue would help prisoners rebuild their lives, giving them the ability to build spiritual lives. He noted that the synagogue's establishment was made possible by close cooperation between Russia's Prison Service and the Jewish community.
Ironically, Rabbi Lazar said in his speech that not long ago in Russia, a Jew would be put in prison for praying and wearing tefillin and prayer shawls – the same activities that now will take place in the new synagogue.
Butryka, considered one of the toughest prisons in Russia, is hundreds of years old, and numerous well known prisoners and dissidents, including writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yevgenia Ginzburg, have been jailed there.