The Grand Choral Synagogue (Bol’shaia khoral’naia sinagoga) (Georgiana Reece)

First Image - smallBetween the banks of the Moyka River and the Griboedov Canal and a block away from the world renowned Mariinsky Theater stands the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg.(1) It is nestled between two buildings with its spiral Moorish dome peeking above, reminding passersby, as Tsar Alexander II wanted, that the Jews originate in the east and are foreigners to Russia. (2) During the Blockade of Leningrad, a missile hit this very dome, but according to the son of the current rabbi, Shalom Pewzner, due to the grace of God, it failed to explode (3)  The Middle Eastern-style facade makes the outside of the building appear smaller than it is. The interior of the Grand Choral Synagogue opens up to a high dome and rows upon rows of pews with a gallery for women, for in Orthodox Judaism men and women pray separately.

The entrances to the synagogue, kosher store, school, and kosher restaurant are gated and a security guard hovers by the turnstiles watching tourists and worshippers alike walk through.  No security guards are present at other stores, restaurants, and places of worship in St. Petersburg not charging entrance fees, suggesting that despite Putin’s openness to the Jewish community the Jews still do not trust and Second Imagefeel welcomed by their fellow Russians.(4) Past the entrance and to the right is a tent containing a kosher restaurant for the summer (second image). The permanent restaurant is in the basement of the synagogue.(5) To the left, sits the kosher store which sells items from matzah to matryoshka dolls painted to look like Orthodox Jews.

In the lobby of the synagogue, a tour guide sits ready to give tours along with a concierge who has pamphlets about different cultural events at the synagogue. As with any other place of worship that has become a tourist attraction, a small gift shop also greets one upon entry. The lobby contains signs with information detailing the origins of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg, the construction of the synagogue, its brief closure, the repression under the Soviet Union, the Zionist movement, and the rebirth of Judaism in the post-Soviet era. Each sign is written in Russian, Hebrew, and English. The Russian is most likely meant for Russians discovering their Jewish heritage, the Hebrew for tourists or maybe to remind the congregation of its connection to Israel, and the English maybe for their rabbi, an expatriate from the US, but, more likely it is meant for American Jews wishing to connect with the place where their families once worshipped. The signs not only tell of the history of the Jews in St. Petersburg, but the English and Hebrew on the signs Third Imagealso represent where members of the community put down roots in an effort to find the religious freedom their homeland lacked. Proudly displayed on a cork board in the lobby hangs a photo of the rabbi shaking hands with Vladimir Putin who has made the Jews feel safe and accepted for the first time in Russia. As Shalom Pewzner says, the Post-Soviet period is the best time to be Jewish in Russian history. (6) Since its consecration in 1893, the Grand Choral Synagogue of St.Petersburg has served not only as a place of worship and community but as a site of memory for Jews and non-Jews alike of St. Petersburg. (7) It serves as a symbol of reform, oppression, conservatism, and rebirth in the memories of the Jewish community and the general population of St. Petersburg.

The Synagogue As a Symbol of Reform

The synagogue stands as a symbol of reform. In Judaism, it is a symbol of reform because the origins and characteristics of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg made them more Russian than other Jews in the Russian Empire. Therefore, they needed to reform Judaism to reflect their integration and progress.  In Russia, the synagogue is a symbol of reform because the construction of the synagogue demonstrates how other cultures and religions became more accepted towards the end of the Russian Empire.

The story of the Jews in St. Petersburg is one of growing tolerance by the Russian people over time. For much of Russian history, Jews were forced to live in an area of Eastern Europe, stretching from Lithuania down to Ukraine, known as the Pale of Settlement. By the 18th century and continuing into the 19th century, Jews began to covertly reside in St. Petersburg because their residence within the city was illegal. Later, the tsars began permitting a handful of Jews to legally reside in the city as guests because their professions were deemed essential to the prosperity of the empire. These Jews were the first to establish official and legal chapels within the city. Then, in 1855, Tsar Alexander II lessened restrictions on where Jews could live in the Russian Empire leading to a great influx of Jews into St. Petersburg. Alexander II showed warmth to the Jewish people and granted permission for the community to build the first synagogue in the city.(8)  He allowed the construction of the synagogue due to the belief that it “would add to Russia’s ‘honor and glory, because it would once again prove that [Russians] are increasingly putting an end to [Russia’s] former shameful prejudices.’”(9)  However, the synagogue was completed in the wake of massive pogroms and antisemitc riots following the assassination of Alexander II. These pogroms and others throughout Russian history were designed to Russify the Jews.(10) These riots and other problems  led to issues  of location and design, thus, the construction of the synagogue was not completed until 1893, 24 years after permission for its construction was granted.(11) Clearly, over time, Russian culture reformed and became more open to other religions, and “for the general population, the synagogue serves as a moral compass of tolerance” to reflect these changes in culture. (12) Therefore, the synagogue has come to stand for not only the reform of the Jewish way of life in Russia but also the Russian way of life.

After the Jewish community in St. Petersburg was established, it took on many unique characteristics which made its members open to reforms within Judaism. Firstly, the city did not force Jews to live in ghettos, instead, Jews could reside in areas of the city where their trades took them. (13) This liberal stance towards settlement was very unique in Europe and Russia. It enabled Jewish integration in Russian culture through interacting on a daily basis with neighbors which led to cultural diffusion. It helped make the St. Petersburg Jewish community more Russian than other groups of Jews in the Russian Empire. The community was also unique because the members were wealthier and better educated than their counterparts who remained in the Pale of Settlement. These characteristics made the community eager to embrace the reform movements from Germany and Odessa which were updating Judaism to reflect the lives of European integrated Jews. (14)

The members of the St. Petersburg synagogue took inspiration from the German and Ukrainian reformers and enacted these reforms in their own synagogue. (15) These changes encouraged and reflected integration.  Services were held in Russian. There were weddings in the synagogue (16), and the men of the congregation began to wear top hats instead of yarmulkes. (17) The synagogue itself is even dedicated to Tsar Alexander II demonstrating the Jews’ strategic integration into the Russian Empire. (18) Furthermore, the Jews of St. Petersburg displayed their modernity by replacing the typical yeshiva on the grounds of the synagogue with a vocational school. (19) And, even the name of the synagogue -“the Grand Choral Synagogue” – is evidence of reform and integration as choirs are not a part of a Jewish service and are more often seen in Christian houses of worship. (20)The St Petersburg Jews enacted reforms in their synagogue to show that they were not only integrated citizens of the Russian Empire but also modern and cosmopolitan, a strategic effort to avoid the oppression they were subject to for hundreds of years.

Symbol of Memories of Oppression

Despite the fact that the synagogue has come to represent the growing tolerance towards the Jews at the end of the 19th century, its architecture and location represent the oppression the Jews still faced in the form of pogroms and other restrictions. During the Soviet period, Judaism was highly securalized. Even though the synagogue remained open, it came to embody the repression of the government as Jews were punished and arrested for attending religious services.

Firstly, the synagogue symbolizes the memories of oppression during the tsarist era through its architecture and location. The synagogue was built with the permission of Alexander II who wantedFourth Image to display the tolerance and diversity of the Russian Empire to Western Europe. Therefore, the synagogue was built in a Moorish style as the Tsar’s government wanted to represent the Jews as an oriental and foreign people. This design was contrary to what many in the Jewish community wanted. (21) They desired the synagogue to be built in the style of a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in order to reflect their integration into the Russian Empire and the fact that they were European. (22)  Furthermore, the synagogue is styled with an impressive dome, but it is not what it could have been according to Shalom Pewzner. (23)  The dome had to be adjusted in the design so that it would not be taller than a nearby Orthodox Church. (24) The location of the synagogue was also restricted as the Jews were denied in their attempts to buy property in different parts of the city. (25) The reasons given were that it would be too close to a church, as Nicholas I declared that a synagogue could not be built within 200 yards of a church, or that the Jews would be at risk of anti-semitic crimes. (26), (27)  Therefore, the synagogue now lies far from Nevsky Prospect and is tucked away behind the Mariinsky Theaters. Its small dome renders it almost unnoticeable from afar. Even though being allowed to build the synagogue was a huge victory for the Jews of  St. Petersburg, its location and architecture are a constant reminder of the oppression and restrictions their ancestors faced in Tsarist Russia.

Secondly, the synagogue also serves as a reminder of oppression in the USSR even though it was not damaged or closed. For the Bolsheviks, Marxist ideology told them that “religion is the opium of the people” used to oppress the working class. They thus sought to abolish it. (28) Lenin did not believe that religion would fade immediately, and so there was a reprieve towards religion under the New Economic Policy.(29) (30)  By the time of the first Five Year Plan, however, there were crackdowns on religion and a rise in the League of Militant Atheists who developed the Five Year Plan for Atheism to close down all houses of worship by 1937. (31)  During this plan for atheism, which eventually faded, the Grand Choral Synagogue closed for six months in 1930. That the synagogue remained open was highly unusual compared to the stories of other houses of worship being closed and repurposed. The Soviet Union  “aimed at the full secularization of the church and the synagogue” as a means of de-emphasizing them as a physical space for religion. (32)  It encouraged Jews to have a “living synagogue” which meant creating a “semi-religious stream in Judaism” that was more of an ethnic identity than a religion. (33)   The city authorities attempted to remove all religious ritual from the synagogue, and Jews faced punishment, such as arrest or dismissal from university, for attending services. (34)  Judaism became so secularized that many people stopped keeping traditions at home, thus the collective memories of Jewish traditions were lost. (35) Shalom Pewzner noted that many Jews who come to the synagogue in the present day have no prior knowledge of Judaism.(36) Therefore, the synagogue now embodies the traditions and religious knowledge destroyed during the Soviet era.

Symbol of Conservatism

Although the synagogue was once a place of reform, under Soviet rule it became much more conservative. It became a safe haven for Zionists and Hasidics whose political activities outside the synagogue became very limited and often illegal. (37) Furthermore, during the Soviet period many reforms came to a grinding halt, and being Jewish became about preserving Judaism and Jewish culture and not reforming and liberalizing it.(38) The Soviet government wanted the synagogue to reform, but many rabbis resisted as the reforms were meant to repress and eventually eliminate Judaism.(39) Despite a brief reprieve during World War II, the repressive tactics had returned by 1950 and appeared effective as attendance at the synagogue dropped. (40)

In the 1970s, interest in Judaism was on the rise again, however, even with the repression and arrests of Jews who attended synagogue. Jews began to secretly teach and learn Judaic Studies which may have developed their interest in Zionism.   However, their  Zionism led to extremism when a group of Zionist terrorists from the Grand Choral Synagogue were apprehended on their way to hijack an airplane bound for Sweden. The terrorists planned on using the act as an opportunity to gain media attention for the reality of life for Jews in the Soviet Union.  The failed hijack and the growing tension between Zionist groups and the government led the USSR to open up emigration for Jews. Many Jews were granted visas and allowed to immigrate to the United States of America and Israel.  However, by the 1980s, the government began to refuse visas leading to a group of practicing Jews left behind, known as refuseniks. (41) This incident represents the conservatism of the synagogue because it demonstrates how the Jews were trying to preserve traditional values, such as a Jewish homeland in Israel through movements like Zionism. Furthermore, the refuseniks who were forced to stay are responsible for the rebirth of the Grand Choral Synagogue in the modern day. For them, the synagogue became the  place to conserve traditions and rebuild the Jewish community.

Fifth ImageThus, in modern Russia, the synagogue remains a symbol of conservatism as it is an Orthodox Synagogue.(42) In this denomination of Judaism, men and women are not allowed to pray together, and traditions and holidays are kept more strictly than in Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism. Although, as Shalom Pewzner assures, the synagogue is open to Jews of all denominations, knowledge, and experience levels with Judaism. (43)  The conservatism is also evident in how the vocational school that was once a part of the synagogue during the tsarist era has now been replaced with a yeshiva. (44)  In addition, the new friendship between the Jewish community of St. Petersburg and Putin’s conservative regime is further confirmation of the Grand Choral Synagogue as a place of conservatism.(45)  In the interest of survival, the Jewish community of St. Petersburg has compromised political liberties for religious freedom.

Symbol of Rebirth

Perestroika brought about more openness to religion and allowed the first legal Jewish organizations to exist. (46) This was the beginning of the rebirth not only of Judaism but of all religious faiths with the fall of the Soviet Union. People were no longer afraid to practice, and this led to a renaissance of religion. Although Jews began to engage more with their faith in Russia, many took the opportunity to immigrate to Israel. (47) However, this trend seems to have ended as, currently, many Jews consider Russia a safe and open place for Judaism and have chosen to stay.(48) As the son of the current rabbi of the St. Petersburg Synagogue, Shalom Pewzner, said: “today is the safest and freest time to be Jewish in Russia.” (49)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of Judaism, a “new Jew,” as historian Elena Nosenko-Stein argues, has emerged in Russia.  This type of Jew knows the traditions and history of the Jewish people from elder relatives but was not raised practicing or going to synagogue. Now, these Jews are becoming involved with the synagogue in order to learn about Judaism.  They  engage with the community, although they believe that Judaism is not essential to being Jewish. The “new Jews” also lack knowledge of Jewish culture and history as many remain ignorant about the Holocaust and do not care to learn.  This lack of knowledge is due to the Soviet downplaying of the importance of the Holocaust and suppressing the collective memories on this topic of not only Jews but all Russians. Synagogues in Russia try to remedy this through holding lectures and talks, but it may not be enough to recover the collective history and memories of the Holocaust.(50) Even though the “new Jews” are aware of some Jewish traditions, the legacy of Soviet oppression leaves them ignorant about important events that have shaped the Jewish identity in the twentieth century.

Shalom Pewzner also emphasized that there are many Jews, who do not fall into the “new Jew” category. They did not grow up keeping religious traditions or even knowing their religious heritage. (51) In fact, 14 to 24% of Russian Jews are Christians and have no knowledge that this contradicts their Jewish identity. (52) The Grand Choral Synagogue attempted to fill this void with the help of rabbi Pewzner, who came from New York to St.Petersburg in the 1990s to revive the faith, culture, and traditions in Russia. (53) The Grand Choral Synagogue hosts lectures, concerts, a cooking club, and a myriad of other cultural events. (54) The synagogue also engages its community through its cultural store, the kosher restaurant, and a dating service designed to create new Jewish families. (55) Shalom Pewzner stresses that people do not know what it means to be Jewish and that they want to get involved on a personal level in order to learn. (56)  The synagogue welcomes Jews from all backgrounds and empowers people to get involved so that they understand and learn about their heritage. (57)

Today, the Grand Choral Synagogue also makes great efforts to expand and engage with the city as a whole. One way it does this is through a revival of an old tradition– matzah-making. Traditionally, before Passover the Grand Choral Synagogue made matzah and sold it to the Jewish community.  ThSixth Imagee synagogue restarted this tradition and Jews and non-Jews alike participate in buying matzah. Pewzner believes this is because the synagogue has become an important symbol of tolerance and acceptance to the entire community of St. Petersburg, not just among the Jews.  It is such a significant event that, according to Pewzner, even President Putin has publicly spoken about it.  In addition to the matzah-making, the synagogue has a day where there are free tours and all are welcome to learn about Judaism.(58) The new openness of the synagogue and the Russian people enable Jews to be proud of their heritage and renew their community. Walking through the rows of pews, it is hard to imagine all the seats filled in the synagogue. Although Russia was once home to the largest Jewish population in the world, it was nearly annilated by the Holocaust and repression under the Soviets. (59)  However, the Jewish community are hopeful that the number of Jews in Russia will continue to grow and that the Grand Choral Synagogue will remain at the center of their community.(60)

Works cited