Not Enough for a Prayer
Simon Shimshilashvili guards an empty building. Since summer 2016 the former farmer holds the key of Georgia’s third largest synagogue, which sits lonely in Oni, a town nestled in the Caucasus mountains. The wooden benches of the lavish, an eclectic-style temple, dating back to 1895, have been deserted for years as the once-thriving Jewish community is now reduced to barely 12 people in the town of 6,100. As Judaism requires a minimum of ten men to open the synagogue for worship, the building remains empty and is locked most of the time. Shimshilashvili routinely goes around to make sure all is fine.
Most of his relatives have moved to Israel and Shimshilashvili himself contemplates about traveling back and forth between the two countries. But not everyone wants to abandon these mountains. Suliko Shimshilashvili (not related to Simon) is adamant about staying, although her children and grandchildren have long left for Israel as well. Now 76, she remembers the vibrant community in the 1960s when Jews outnumbered ethnic Georgians in town. In the whole of Georgia, Jews totalled up 80,000 as early as the 1970s, but at the fall of Soviet Union many opted to move to Israel as the 2002 census recorded 3,541 people of Jewish faith. Today the number is believed to be much smaller.
Forty-nine year old Ismail Amshikashvili, employed at the local water supply company, is battling between his desire to remain in his native Georgia and the call of his faith to Israel. “I am afraid I would not fit,” he fears.