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Georgia’s first egalitarian synagogue shares a roof with church and mosque

TJI Wrap
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Georgia’s first egalitarian synagogue shares a roof with church and mosque

Published: 18 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The Peace Synagogue breaks barriers at both an interfaith and intrafaith level.

There have been Jews in the Republic of Georgia for some 2600 years. But when Ilona Levinets blew the shofar on a recent morning, she was heralding a previously unknown event.

Levinets, 34, and five others were about to become the first women to read Torah in the country.

The event took place at the Peace Synagogue, a new congregation that shares a home with similarly minded church and mosque communities.

The response to the first egalitarian synagogue in the country has been vicious. Rabbis in both Georgia and Israel denounced the emerging congregation as sinful both because of women’s participation and because of its connection to a church. They threatened the jobs of both the local Hillel director — one of the women who read Torah — and Israel’s ambassador, who attended the historic ceremony. 

In a conspiratorial and hate-filled Facebook post, the rabbis promised a “severe and brutal response” to the progressive Jewish pioneers and their project. 

But for participants from all three religions The Peace Project is a chance to break barriers.

The project is the brainchild of Metropolitan Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, after riots against various minorities in Georgia in 2013 spurred him to show how the different faiths can unite against prejudice.

Bishop Songulashvili (Eli Deush Krogmann)
Bishop Songulashvili (Eli Deush Krogmann)

Bishop Songulashvili is a Baptist but his liberal views about women and LGBTQ+ rights have brought him into conflict with his church.

He is a great believer in the power of women to maintain religion. He points out that when the communists came to power in 1921, they tried to wipe out religion in Georgia by defrocking priests, killing them or sending them to Siberia.

“They made a mistake, because it was ladies who kept the religion alive. One of them was my grandmother. She would go to villages, she was not ordained, she would preach and keep religion alive.”

Now his Peace Cathedral, Peace Mosque and Peace Synagogue are keeping religion alive in a new form. At the opening, Muslims were fascinated to witness a Jewish service for the first time, some Christians were moved to tears that he enmity of the past had culminated in such a harmonious rapprochement.

One member of the Georgian Jewish community told the Jewish Chronicle, “My ancestors suffered persecution from both other faiths, and would rejoice at how much has changed.”

The Georgian building with a synagogue, church and mosque under same roof (Jewish Chronicle)

‘Make for me a sanctuary’: Amid Orthodox ire, Tbilisi women read Torah for the first time (Forward)

Photo: Nina Mgeladze, centre, one of the first women to read Torah at the Tbilisi Peace Synagogue, with Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin, left, and Misha Grishashvili, the synagogue’s founding president, and his wife, Keti Chikviladze, director of Georgia’s Hillel, right, both of whom also became b’nai mitzvah. (Eli Deush Krogmann/Forward)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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