Moscow's Kremlin
Moscow's KremlinITAR-TASS/Russian Federation

Twenty-five years after the Kremlin hosted its first-ever Jewish event, thousands of Russian Jews gathered at the government compound in Moscow to celebrate Hanukkah.

About 6,000 people, wearing their best clothes, arrived Wednesday to the State Kremlin Palace, a 1961 building that once hosted the congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, for the annual Fiddler on the Roof awards ceremony, the L’Chaim Jewish weekly reported.

The event was keynoted by Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia whose Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia – the country’s largest Jewish group – honors several individuals for their exceptional contributions to Russian Jewry.

It was the 14th Fiddler on the Roof ceremony, thought it happened 25 years after the first Jewish event at the Kremlin, which prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 housed some of its most rabidly anti-Semitic governments.

“It is very symbolic, but not only for us, I think,” Lazar said at the ceremony. “Everyone realizes that a new era is upon Russia, in which the state not only merely permits religious holidays, but supports them, congratulates believers, provides them with the most prestigious buildings, halls and squares.”

While Russia under President Vladimir Putin has been widely criticized internally and abroad for human rights abuses and anti-gay legislation, his government has prosecuted cases of anti-Semitic hate speech and violence with relative severity.

Among the laureates was PJ Library, a program providing free Jewish children’s books to families, which last year expanded to Russia with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Russian Jewish Congress and donors.

Founded in 2005 by American Jewish philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, the PJ Library says it sends more than 150,000 Jewish children’s books each month to Jewish children and families in North America and to more than 400,000 Jewish children globally. The glossy books, with a commercial value of well over $10 in Russia, are sent free of charge.

Others honored included Arkady Kovelman, who received the award in education for his work as the head of the Department of Jewish Studies of the Institute of Asia and Africa of the Moscow State University. In the cultural event of the year category, the honorees were those responsible for an ongoing translation of the Talmud into Russian.