Grand Choral Synagogue
The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg is the 2nd largest synagogue in Europe and has a fascinating history. It now stands as a testament to the perseverance of the Jewish community in St Petersburg to finally have their own place of worship, and a most beautiful one at that. It stands discreetly off Ulitsa Dekabristov, with its corkscrew-ribbed cupola poking above the rooftops, on the corner of Lermontovskiy Prospekt.
The 19th Century
Jews were the most oppressed minority within the Tsarist Empire, where they were largely confined to a region called The Pale of Settlement and were barely tolerated in the capital prior to the reforms of Alexander II.
Not until 1893 was the community socially and financially secure enough to build a synagogue and cultural centre, in the Moorish style of synagogues in Eastern Europe.
A committee headed by Horace Ginzburg had been started, to plan and fund raise for the construction. The largest contribution was made by Evzel Ginzburg and large donations were also given by S.S. Polyakov and I.A. Vavelberg along with several other contributions totalling some 100,000 Rubles.
However, their contributions proved to be still not enough to commence on this splendid synagogue and a loan was taken from the St Petersburg-Moscow Commercial Bank for 70,000 Rubles along with additional offerings from Horace Ginzburg and brothers Samuel and Daniel Polyakov.
Time and time again the committees proposals, to buy a suitable plot of land were denied, for sometimes unsubstantiated reasons, by the Police master-general of the time. After 10 years of negotiations the house of A.A. Rostovsky and its adjoining plot of land was purchased for 65,000 Rubles.
And so began the discussions about the design of the synagogue and it was decided that a competition would be held. The winning architects were Bakhman and Shaposhnikov, whose design was submitted to Tsar Alexander II only to be turned down; Alexander thought it should be “a little more modest.” Fortunately the architects re-made their design, for free, and on May 16, 1883 Alexander II approved the second design and construction began.
From Building to Opening
From 1884 to 1888 the main construction took place and in 1888 the cupola of the Grand Choral Synagogue was decorated and the process of interior design began. On December 8, 1893 the Grand Choral Synagogue was officially opened and consecrated during a most lavish ceremony. The door was opened with a specially designed silver key and 7 Torah scrolls were brought into the hall. It had taken so many years to be accepted into society and over 24 years to raise money, plan and receive permission, but finally the Jewish community of St Petersburg had their Grand Choral Synagogue.
The World Wars
During WWI a 100-bed hospital for the wounded, of all confessions, was organised by the Jewish community, on the premises of the synagogue. And the Synagogue was bombed by the Nazi army during the Siege of Leningrad between 1941 and 1943. However, the hospital remained in operation. The Jewish community managed to survive the blockade, as well as many other oppressions over the years.
During the Soviet Era the Jewish community had a rocky relationship with the authorities and the Grand Choral Synagogue was closed several times, only to be re-opened after the authorities realized the importance it played within the community. A famous Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was even imprisoned for “anti-soviet” activities. However, the Grand Choral Synagogue remained a part of the community and the persistence of the Jews in St Petersburg kept it alive. Fund-raising was banned, traditional rituals were made un-lawful, and the activities inside the Synagogue were watched closely by the authorities and secret police. In the 1970's and 1980's repairs were made to the Synagogue but all was still not well. Many Jews were refused emigration and forced to stay in the Soviet Union – the Grand Choral Synagogue became an important place for communication and refuge. In the mid to late 1980's there was a youth movement and the Synagogue started to fill up again with those wishing to worship. Cultural organisations were formed during Perestroika and concerts were held in the Grand Choral Synagogue.
Today the Great Choral Synagogue of St Petersburg is a registered landmark and an architectural monument of federal importance as well as, of course, an important cultural center for the Jewish community in St Petersburg. The Synagogue runs several schools and is involved in charitable works such as a Yeshiva that dispenses cheap meals to Jewish pensioners. There is also a Matzobakery and a Kosher restaurant along with a souvenir shop for visitors.
Several renovations have taken place during the last 15 years including renovation of the concert hall and a new Mikvah.
There is now an informative exhibition on Jewish history in the foyer of the Great Synagogue (Bolshaya Sinagoga), whose magnificent prayer hall, with its stucco squinches and stalactite mouldings, has been restored following a 5 million dollar donation from the Saffra family in 1999, along with others from the diaspora. This hall holds in excess of 1,200 people and has woman’s galleries on three sides.
The Synagogue is praised for its wonderful acoustics and it is said that by placing ones ear in the right place, one can hear the minutest of whispers from way across the opposite end of the hall, your guide will show you where to put your ear.