Sept. 8, 2006
Summer nights in St. Petersburg
Russia's second-largest city is home to magnificent sites and
a thriving Jewish community.
BEN G. FRANK
In the summer, St. Petersburg shines, and the sun reflects off
the golden steeple of the Admiralty building. As you drive through
Peter the Great's "window on the west," or stroll along
the banks of the Neva, Fontanka and Moika canals, the dazzling sun
shines on water and green foliage.
One cannot help but admire the new Russia, compared to the despondent
former Soviet Union. Russia in the 21st century is awash with oil,
and it shows in the downtown centres of cities such as this second
St. Petersburg is located on the same latitude as southern Alaska
and the middle of Hudson Bay. It's Russia's second-largest city,
the birthplace of the Russian Revolution, the country's largest
port and home to five million people, including 100,000 Jews.
In the evening, the so-called "white nights" keep the
great colonnades of the old Bourse, the Winter Palace, the Admiralty
and the Bronze Horseman bright. Walk down the famous Nevsky Prospect,
the city's main street, where Russians under 30 with computers slung
over their shoulders smile and chat away on cellphones. Shop at
Gostinyy Dvor, the great bazaar that was the commercial heart of
St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 18th century. Today, it still
hums with activity, only now Russians buy from its designer boutiques.
The bus from our cruise ship, the Regent Seven Seas, let us off
at Arts Square the calm oasis where the Russian Museum and
other institutions act as a reminder of the city's rich cultural
life, including symphony orchestras and fine ballet companies.
This is a young city: founded near the Baltic shores by Peter the
Great on May 16, 1703. His new capital was designed to serve as
a connecting link with the West to emphasize Russia's international
position and strengthen the European character of Russian court
If Jewish travellers want to see how Jewish life is being created
here since the fall of communism in 1991, they should stop at what
the Jews of St. Petersburg now call home: YESOD, the St. Petersburg
Jewish Community Home, located on Bolshaya Raznochinnaya 25a.
The new state-of-the-art 21st-century, four-storey, 75,000-square-foot,
$11-million building, replete with meeting rooms, offices, classrooms
and, after 9/11, a blast-resistant security wall stands
as one of the largest Jewish buildings in Russia. The American Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee organized and sponsored the capital
project, involving partners and foundations who also contributed
to the building of this new centre for the Jews of St. Petersburg.
On a recent visit to this city, which was formerly known as both
Petrograd and Leningrad, I stopped off at the centre. My gaze took
in a group of seniors singing Hebrew songs, reminding me that only
20 years ago under communism, they would not dare voice these tunes
in public, let alone stand in an existing Jewish centre. I observed
an Israeli dance class full of visiting American Jews who, arm-in-arm,
joined their Russian co-religionists in joyfully moving their feet
together in an atrium full of light made brighter by the summer
sun. I listened to a group of young Russian boys and girls rendering
Hebrew and Yiddish songs.
There is another aspect of the fine work being done in this building,
too. Located here is Hesed Avraham, sponsored by the JDC to meet
the welfare needs of the elderly and physically handicapped. These
services include home care, medical equipment, meals-on-wheels and
Now YESOD acts as the hub and focus of a broad spectrum of Jewish
programs, including Hesed Avraham, NETZER, the youth movement of
the World Union of Progressive Judaism, Hillel and the Youth Club
of the Jewish Agency, Adayin Lo Jewish Family Centre and the EVA
Russia is developing a middle class. Jewish leaders here want to
present to all the people a comfortable, modern facility that brings
more Jews to an active Jewish life. YESOD welcomes guests; although
it's advisable to call first: 011-7-812-449-5253.
Another historic centre of Jewish life in St. Petersburg has been
renovated and spruced up. No longer does a drab, grey facade discolor
a beautiful Jewish house of worship. The Grand Choral Synagogue
the Edmund Safra Synagogue on Lermontovsky St. 2 attracts
many visitors. The Safra family donated more than $1 million US
for renovations, including redoing the small synagogue. Unlike in
communist days, Jews do not fear entering the shul. Some say the
Choral Synagogue was so named because young boys sang there.
The 1,200-seat domed structure, built in the Moorish style, is open
during the day and most of the night, especially during summer's
white nights. Considered one of the most beautiful, well-preserved
synagogues in Europe, this is the second largest congregation ion
the continent, after the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest.
This synagogue contains a kosher restaurant, L'Chaim, and a kosher
products store, including Judaica. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pewzner,
its spiritual leader and a Lubavitch Chassid, is from Brooklyn.
To contact the synagogue, call 011-7-812-320-1329 for guided tours,
or visit www.Jewishpetersburg.ru.
Ben G. Frank is a travel writer whose books include
A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine (Pelican Publishing).