‘Make for me a sanctuary’: Amid Orthodox ire, Tbilisi women read Torah for the first time
Georgia’s first non-Orthodox synagogue in 2,600 years is attached to a church and a mosque
TBILISI, Georgia – The first few shofar blasts Ilona Levinets blew were sputtering and shaky. It was an apt metaphor for her Jewish heritage, and that of the other young adults becoming belated b’nai mitzvah here in a startup synagogue made of ancient stones.
Their Jewish story is one of muddled and buried identity, of spiritual seeking often shunned in a post-Soviet republic still caught between Russia and the West.
There have been Jews in the republic of Georgia for some 2,600 years. But on this morning, Levinets, 34, and five others became the first women to ever read Torah in the country.
“It’s like a dream for me — out of nowhere, to be honest,” she said.
I traveled to Tbilisi with a group from my New Jersey synagogue to witness and support these women and the groundbreaking events they were part of on the last weekend in May. We were there to consecrate the first liberal, egalitarian Jewish prayer space in this conservative and Orthodox country — and, with it, the first complex containing a church, synagogue and mosque under the same roof in the entire world.
Georgia was once home to 100,000 Jews. As in neighboring countries, many converted or suppressed their Judaism during the Soviet era, and afterward, most moved to Israel. But while liberal Jewish communities have sprouted in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, Georgia’s surviving synagogues are strictly Orthodox — and particularly old-fashioned.
Georgian rabbis here and in Israel denounced the emerging congregation, called the Peace Synagogue, as sinful both because of women’s participation and because of its connection to a church, the Peace Cathedral. 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.
The backlash was offensive. But I was also dismayed to discover that the rabbi and his recruits had made no outreach efforts to Tbilisi’s established Jewish leaders, however closed minded. I worried that their immersive approach to interfaith work would complicate their quest for a liberal Jewish home — I knew, for example, that even many pluralists would be shocked to see my synagogue’s cantor prostrate herself during a Muslim prayer service as an imam chanted “Allahu akbar,” because I was. And I thought the fact that one of the b’nai mitzvah was a Christian with no plans to convert threatened to undermine the milestone event.
When I asked Ben-Chorin if all this did not amount to giving his enemies ammunition, he shrugged me off. “Once you work from a perspective of what ammunition,” he said, “you’ve sort of lost the battle.”
It was a lot to absorb and process. But the b’nai mitzvah itself was a moving experience, at once familiar and foreign.
My favorite part: Instead of the congregation giving the b’nai mitzvah gifts like a kiddush cup, they each gave the community a gift of their own creativity. It felt like both a reflection of their gratitude for the unexpected opportunity to engage Jewishly — and a showcase of the place as a work in progress.
Levinets not only blew the shofar, which she had purchased in Israel, but donated it, as if to say: We will be back on the High Holidays. Misha Grishashvili, an engineer, welded a blue stained-glass window, perhaps soon to hang on the Peace Synagogue’s walls.
Laylah Jishiashvili and Lisabeta Baradzina hand-embroidered a parochet, the curtain that hangs in the ark, with a gold menorah and red pomegranates.
“Torah is the heart of a synagogue, and a heart has to be hugged so it won’t be lonely,” explained Jishiashvili, who is 36 and did not learn of her Jewish ancestry until she was an adult.
“It’s a new synagogue; I wanted it to have the soul of an old thing, like grandma made it,” she told me. “I wanted to make something with my hands. Something that I can touch and that will stay here — I won’t say forever, but for a long time.”
‘Having a community show up for them’
I decided to go to Georgia because it had never before occurred to me to do so. Because I knew virtually nothing about the place — including that it is pronounced JYOR-jee-ya, unlike the U.S. state by the same name — and could probably not have found it on a map. (It’s that little one between the Black and Caspian seas, bordering Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.)
I first heard about the trip in February, when Cantor Meredith Greenberg sent an email about it to my family’s congregation, Temple Ner Tamid of Bloomfield, New Jersey. She mentioned that her parents helped resettle Jewish refuseniks from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a cause I had also been engaged with as a teenager.
“Now, 40 years later, in an exciting turn of events, it is I who will be traveling to a foreign land,” she wrote, “and bringing with me the gifts of liberal Jewish values, ritual, and custom.”
Greenberg outlined the basic backstory of the Peace Synagogue — and the broader Peace Project’s aspirations to have Jews, Christians and Muslims praying side by side. She invited people to make prayer shawls and challah covers for the young Georgian Jews, to donate ritual objects we might have lying around — and to travel with her to Tbilisi for Shavuot, for what she described as “the first-ever Adult B’nai Mitzvah in Georgian history.”
“My sense from the start, and it wound up really being true,” Greenberg told me after we got back, “was that the isolation these young adults were feeling could only shift by having a community show up for them.”
Eight of us initially signed up, each with our own reasons. Two were helping Cantor Greenberg train the b’nai mitzvah students to chant Torah via Zoom. One described himself as a “travel whore.” Another was intrigued because her parents’ longtime health aides were from Tbilisi.
Three more synagogue members tagged along to make a Kickstarter-funded documentary about the whole adventure. Like me, they thought that with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine unsettling the region, and Israel’s new right-wing government trying to delegitimize non-Orthodox Judaism, this unconventional project in this unlikely place would make for an interesting story.
It is a story of freedom and faith, politics and identity, tradition and innovation, unfolding against a backdrop of geopolitical fear and instability.
The protagonist, in many ways, was not the b’nai mitzvah but a 60-year-old Christian bishop who looks like Dumbledore, talks like a Talmud scholar, hikes miles on muddy mountains in sandals, and never lets a guest’s wine glass go empty.
His name is Malkhaz Songulashvili. He has a Ph.D. in comparative religion from Oxford, has completed two translations of the Torah into Georgian, and is working on one of the Quran. For two decades, he was the top cleric in Georgia’s Evangelical Baptist Church, which he likes to say is “neither evangelical nor Baptist.”
It is one of the country’s smallest denominations, with about 10,000 adherents — 0.2% of the population of 3.7 million — and its most vocal on gender equality and social justice.
But the church’s board refused to stand by Songulashvili’s outspoken support of LGBTQ+ rights, leading him to resign under pressure as its archbishop in 2014. He remains the church’s Bishop of Tbilisi, a post previously held by his father, who in some ways inherited it from his own mother.
When the communists came to power in 1921, Songulashvili told us, they tried to wipe out religion in Georgia by defrocking priests, killing them or sending them to Siberia. But “people continued to worship God in domestic settings,” he said.
“They made a mistake, because it was ladies who kept the religion alive,” the bishop said of the Soviet rulers. “One of them was my grandmother. She would go to villages, she was not ordained, she would preach and keep religion alive.”
‘Every expression of holiness is valuable’
On our first day in Georgia, Songulashvili toured us around Tbilisi, which he said was settled 18 centuries before the birth of Jesus (whom he called “a Jewish rabbi.”)
Its architecture is a messy mosaic of Byzantine, neo-Classical and Brutalist, punctuated by a few steel-and-glass flourishes from shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. Many buildings on the windy, hilly streets of the city’s Old Town were under construction; many others were collapsing from neglect.
Songulashvili knew them all. Here was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which the Soviets used as a volleyball court — his wife played there as a child. See this theater? It used to be the largest synagogue in Georgia, until the Communists seized it. (We snuck in the back, and stood on stage as Cantor Greenberg led “V’asu li mikdash,” a song based on a line from Exodus that means, “Make for me a sanctuary.”)
We trudged up what seemed like a thousand stone steps to a Zoroastrian prayer space that the bishop said dated from the fourth century. It had a tall fireplace of eroding bricks and smelled like incense. Songulashvili explained the Zoroastrian concept of “permanent fire” — like the ner tamid, Hebrew for “forever candle,” that shines over the ark in every synagogue and gave ours its name.
Songulashvili seemed to embody the comparative religion he studied. On Shabbat, he wore a leather yarmulke and sang the Hebrew prayers along with us like a natural. When it was time for Mourner’s Kaddish, he joined in sharing the names of his lost loved ones.
The next day for Pentecost — which marks the 50th day after Easter and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers — he was resplendent in gold-flecked vestments and crown, distributing Communion to his flock. Somehow, that service ended with a rousing rendition of “Oseh Shalom,” our prayer for peace, in both Hebrew and Georgian.
“I am very happy to chant kaddish, I am very happy to observe Shabbat — it does not make me a traitor to my faith,” the bishop told me.
“When I first started to pray with Muslims, I realized I was being liberated from fear and hatred and prejudice. Not intellectually, but emotionally,” he explained. “I’m a human being and I am praying as a human being, not as a Christian, not as a Muslim. It’s not either-or. Every expression of holiness is valuable.”
A synagogue, a church and a mosque
Bishop Malkhaz, as most people call him, was just a boy in 1971 when the Soviet government gave the Evangelical Baptists a warehouse 2 miles from their former cathedral, which had been torn down. The congregants had to clear it of debris and dig down into the basement to make it suitable for services.
Decades later, in 2017, Songulashvili decided to reinvent it as the “Peace Cathedral.” The apse is made of stones taken from destroyed villages in Georgia, and has been purposely left unfinished. “The idea is that every generation has to add their own stones,” the bishop explained.
He procured a large gold menorah and placed it at the front of church, just below a painting of Jesus with a white dove, to symbolize interfaith commitment. Then he went further, and decided to build a synagogue and mosque on either side of the cathedral.
“Then we introduced a princip
e to make our life more difficult,” the bishop told us. “If you’re Jewish, you can’t contribute a penny to the synagogue, you can only contribute to the mosque.” And vice versa.
He said he raised about $100,000 for the synagogue, which was designed by his brother Giorgi, an architect and artisan. The two took inspiration from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria, which dates to the second century, and Turkey’s Sardis Synagogue, believed to be even older. The stones that form the floor are from Isfahan, Iran, where the bishop met an imam who donated 400-year-old doors from his family home to connect the church to both the synagogue and the mosque.
Giorgi’s handmade metalwork, which adorns the balcony, evokes sprouting plants and angels’ wings.
The idea for the compound was borrowed from Berlin’s House of One, an interfaith project that Rabbi Ben-Chorin’s father — the first Israeli-born Reform rabbi — helped start in 2014. The cornerstone for that compound was laid in 2021 on the site of a 13th century church destroyed in World War II, but the building is not yet complete.
A couple of years ago, Songulashvili said, some Turkish Muslims from the House of One offered him $10,000 to buy a Torah for the Peace Synagogue. He was thrilled — but stumped about how to actually procure a Torah. So he reached out to Ben-Chorin.
The rabbi, who is 55, runs an interfaith program in Haifa called the Garden of One, and last year made a documentary about Jews, Muslims and Christians playing pickleball together. (He also runs Finding North, a travel company that organized my shul’s trip to Tbilisi.)
When Songulashvili contacted Ben-Chorin about the Torah, he was immediately game to help. Except for one thing: He did not want to bring a sacred scroll to an empty synagogue. So he set out to find some Jews who might want to use it.
‘What new synagogue?’
Ben-Chorin first reached out to Israel’s ambassador to Georgia, who contacted the local Hillel director. As in other former Soviet republics, Hillel International had been working here to revive Jewish life among new generations, including those whose Jewish heritage does not meet Orthodox strictures. Its Georgia branch opened in 1997 and serves about 400 people ages 15 to 32.
The Tbilisi Hillel runs lively Shabbat dinners, field trips to ancient Jewish sites in other parts of Georgia, educational programs and holiday celebrations. But Hillel is a cultural organization, not a religious one. There was no rabbi, little prayer or text study, no b’nai mitzvah.
The group’s executive director, Keti Chikviladze, said she got a text message from the assistant to the Israeli ambassador in the spring of 2022 asking if she wanted to be a shamash for a new liberal synagogue opening soon in Tbilisi.
“What new synagogue?” she recalled asking. “I knew shamash is the main candle of Hanukkah, but I did not know what they were talking about.”
In all, Ben-Chorin recruited six shamashim for the Peace Synagogue, imagining that they would light the way, as the shamash lights the other candles on a menorah.
He brought the Torah — a 70-year-old Sephardic scroll that stands upright in its copper-colored case while being read — to the unfinished Peace Synagogue space in June 2022. Then, over several visits to Tbilisi and many more Zoom meetings, he and the shamashim wrote a covenant for the new community, defining it as a place “open for prayer and ritual to all Jews who accept all Jews’ rights to practice Judaism as they wish.”
There is, as yet, no real congregation, at least not in the conventional sense of members, regular services or other programs, a budget. Ben-Chorin said he has tried and failed to get funding from the Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Agency, World Zionist Congress and World Union for Progressive Judaism. The Schusterman Foundation did give $5,000, which has underwritten his visits.
Levinets, the shofar blower, said she first learned of the Peace Synagogue only two months before the b’nai mitzvah, in March. Ben-Chorin was giving a talk at Hillel, and she showed up 15 minutes early. They chatted briefly, and when one of the shamashim walked in, the rabbi said: “Add her.”
‘I always practiced Judaism in the way I felt is right’
Tbilisi is 5,500 miles from New York, and there are no direct flights. I left home around 9 p.m. on a Tuesday and walked into our hotel at 5 a.m. on Thursday.
The next morning, soldiers massed in formation outside the hotel for Georgia’s Independence Day ceremony in nearby Freedom Square. A commander snaked through the lines, tucking errant tags into berets. The cafes on the cobblestone street were closed, but I noticed a few of the soldiers’ mothers hovering there, leaning over the railing to kiss a cheek.
Independence Day in Georgia, especially with the war raging in Ukraine, is intense. Georgia has tried to avoid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ire by not joining international sanctions against Moscow or providing military aid to Ukraine. But anti-Putin graffiti speckled the Old Town, and the people we met fear they will be his next target — either as a victory lap, or a consolation prize.
That night at Shabbat services, one of the b’nai mitzvah, Tornike Namicheishvili, 32, wrapped himself in Georgia’s white and red flag as if it were a tallit.
Historians say the first Jews to arrive in Georgia were fleeing the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C.E. Today, estimates of the Jewish population range from 1,500 to 6,000; most left after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
Levinets’ husband, Yossi, and Chikviladze’s, Misha Grishashvil, were in elementary school then. They remember having to chop wood to heat their homes — and having to lug logs to school twice a week for their classrooms.
In those early post-Soviet years, they said, the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee offered vouchers for food and electricity, as well as free camps for Jews. Many families that had hidden or forgotten their Jewishness over generations signed up, including Chikviladze’s.
Grishashvili told me the story because he is more comfortable talking in English. Chikviladze’s grandmother’s father was a rabbi who studied at a yeshiva in Vilna, he said. This great-grandfather married the head rabbi’s daughter, whose name was Rachel. The couple “died mysteriously,” Grishashvili said, and their children — Chikviladze’s grandmother and great-uncle — ended up in an orphanage in the Russian city of Nalchik, which the Germans occupied in 1941.
After the war, the grandmother became an engineer and was sent to work in a factory near Tbilisi. “She was raised in a Communist orphanage, she didn’t give a damn about Judaism,” Grishashvili said.
Two generations later, her granddaughter Keti, who went to those free Jewish camps, has been a counselor on Birthright trips to Israel; wears a Star of David pendant; runs the country’s Hillel; is one of the Peace Synagogue’s shamashim; and was one of the women who made history reading Torah.
“Here in Georgia, people — especially men — think women should have certain roles, like baking cookies and making dinner,” she told me. “I was in U.S. six years ago, and to see women wearing kippah, it was very meaningful.”
Now she is seeing it right here in Tbilisi, in the congregation she is trying to help create. Several of the women who read Torah, like Levinets, wore them during the b’nai mitzvah.
Levinets, whose father used to work for Chabad in Tbilisi, said she learned the Shabbat prayers at age 9 via Russian translation. She recited them, lit Shabbat candles and studied Torah on her own because she could not find a comfortable place among the Orthodox. A few months before meeting Rabbi Ben-Chorin, she had stumbled across a woman talking about her practice of Conservative Judaism, and felt both inspired and validated.
“I always practiced Judaism in the way I felt is right,” Levinets told me. “If I’m using mobile phone on Shabbat, I’m not using it for work, I’m using it to call my sister, who for seven years has lived in New York.”
Bumpy yet bashert
We were chatting in what Bishop Songulashvili calls Abraham’s Hall — an unfinished space with a concrete floor and a corrugated roof — where visitors to the Peace Cathedral, Peace Synagogue and Peace Mosque are meant to gather in fellowship.
Which is exactly what we did after Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning, and Sunday’s Pentecost, a moving, multi-sensory experience different from any church service I have been to in the U.S.. For each, church members prepared a lavish spread: mushroom soup one day and sour yogurt soup the next; Georgia’s signature cheese bread, khachapuri, and ground-walnut-and-vegetable pastes; fresh strawberries, mini sour green plums and hazelnuts from local trees; and plenty of natural wine, which the bishop himself made sure everyone sampled.
Tornike Namicheishvili, the man who wrapped himself in the Georgian flag for Shabbat, told me his story during Friday’s feast. Unlike the other b’nai mitzvah, he said, he does not consider himself Jewish — he is an Orthodox Christian, like more than 80% of Georgia’s population. But he said he has been fascinated by what he called “Hebrew culture” since he was a toddler.
That’s when a friend of his father’s visited from Israel and brought him books about Snow White and Pinocchio, which he treasured. “My parents told me that he was Jewish – this was the first time I heard the word,” Namicheishvili recalled. “As I grew up, I learned that Jesus was Jewish. I heard about Prince of Egypt.”
At university, Namicheishvili became friends with Chikviladze, and started hanging out at Hillel. He is a tour guide who speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish, and on a trip to Poland, he visited Auschwitz and Schindler’s factory.
But despite joining the b’nai mitzvah, he does not plan to convert to Judaism. He likened himself to a zoologist going “into the wild to see the animals,” then quickly realized that analogy sounded bad. “When you experience something on your skin,” he said by way of explanation, “it means more than reading it in a book.”
Sure, I thought, but isn’t the bar mitzvah experience supposed to be … for Jews? It’s one thing to be flexible about ancestry or conversion requirements, and quite another to open an ancient Jewish rite of passage to a person who considers himself Christian.
When I asked Ben-Chorin about Namicheishvili, he at first did not seem to share my concern, saying that each person was on a different point in their “Jewish journey.” But the next day, Ben-Chorin told me I should talk to Namicheishvili again. This time, the tour guide mentioned that one of his great-grandparents might have been Jewish.
I am not interested in policing people’s Jewish heritage. But I knew the synagogue’s critics would seize upon this tidbit to delegitimize it, and I also felt it compromised the ceremony for the b’nai mitzvah who may not have grown up with Judaism but were now fully committing to it.
One of those is Nina Mgeladze, the singer who set the liturgy to Georgian music. Over a Shavuot feast at the home of the Israeli ambassador, Hadas Meitzad, on Thursday night, she told me that her father’s father was Jewish, but “never spoke about it” because of antisemitism after World War II.
Mgeladze’s own father converted to Islam, while she and her mother converted to Orthodox Christianity when Nina was 17. Around the same time, she said, she started asking questions about the Jewish great-grandmother she was named after, a doctor who spoke multiple languages. Mgeladze still went to church — but also to Jewish camps and Hillel programs.
“I always felt some level of responsibility to carry on her legacy,” she said of her great-grandmother. “As I learned more about Jewish culture, it was like some emptiness is filling inside me.”
Laylah Jishiashvili, one of the women who hand-stitched the ark curtain, also had a path to the bimah that seemed at once bumpy and bashert, meant to be.
“Everyone always asks little kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” she told me. “Some say ballerina, some say astronaut. When my parents asked me, I would say, ‘I want to be Jewish.’”
About a dozen years ago, Jishiashvili got a call from a half-uncle in R
ssia who was researching the fa