Yeshiva students (illustrative)
Yeshiva students (illustrative)Aharon Krohn/Flash90

Russian Jews honored a nuclear physicist who during communism helped established the first and only official Jewish religious seminary to ever open in the former Soviet Union.

At last week’s Limmud FSU conference of Jewish learning in Moscow, Evgeny Velikhov for the first time recounted publicly his involvement in the 1989 opening of the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva while serving as deputy chairman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Velikhov, who is not Jewish, in 1988 met at a conference Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, an Israeli mathematician born to secular parents. After being ordained as a rabbi, he became one of the world’s most prominent scholars and interpreters of Jewish texts.

The two men struck a close friendship, Velikhov told the 2,000 participants of last week’s annual Limmud FSU event in Moscow. He agreed to ask then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to facilitate Steinsaltz’s effort of opening a yeshiva in Moscow.

Steinsaltz arrived in Moscow in 1988, as the declining Soviet Union was relaxing its decades-long hostile policy toward religion in general and Judaism specifically.

Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar also spoke at the event, which featured an exhibition celebrating the yeshiva’s 30th anniversary and honoring Steinsaltz, who is 81 years old and living in Jerusalem.

Steinsaltz was the first person “to open the door to the world of Jewish learning” In Russia, Lazar said.

The event was Limmud FSU’s 13th conference, and “bar mitzvah celebration,” the group’s founder, Chaim Chesler, said. Limmud FSU now holds events regularly in over 10 countries.