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Around the Jewish World: St. Petersburg’s Elderly Jews Cling to Tradition Amid Despair

As the faint aroma of citron wafted through the air, Sima Gersona nodded knowingly, smiling as she thought about the past.

“Yes, yes. An etrog,” she whispered, even before the young students giving a presentation on Sukkot to the Golden Age Club in St. Petersburg could launch into their explanation.

For 78-year-old Gersona, life as a pensioner in Russia’s second city is not easy.

She shares a communal apartment with another family and has no close relatives of her own. Nor does her monthly pension of $68 provide much material comfort.

But she has found her people.

“My only joy is that I come here,” she said, looking around at the 50 other elderly Jews who gather weekly to greet the Sabbath at the Chesed Avram charity center, which, along with other groups here, sponsors programs to make the participants’ golden years more joyful.

While a host of organizations are introducing Jewish traditions and Israeli culture to the young, it is in the elderly that the flame continues to flicker brightly.

Born about the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, elderly Jews in St. Petersburg are just old enough to remember the twilight of Jewish life in Old Russia.

Although the Communist regime kept open the city’s Great Choral Synagogue as part of its lip service to supporting national culture, most elderly Jews returned in force only in the late 1980s with the rise of tolerance among Soviet authorities.

“There’s no longer any Soviet Union, and these people are afraid,” said Leonid Kolton, director of Chesed Avram. “They feel a need to be with Jews.”

Life for many elderly Jews in St. Petersburg involves the same hardships and joys as in Russia’s other cities. But St. Petersburg — known during the Communist era as Petrograd and Leningrad before it reverted in post-Soviet times to its former name — also has a character and challenges all its own.

A third of St. Petersburg’s Jewish population is made up of pensioners, a slightly higher ratio than in other cities. Many still live in cramped communal apartments, sharing their life with anywhere from one to five other families.

In Moscow, by contrast, officials have managed to relieve the local housing shortage with an intensive building campaign.

A number of local organizations have come to the aid of St. Petersburg’s aging Jewish population.

The first in a network of centers that opened across the former Soviet Union, Chesed Avram provides the bulk of services for the city’s elderly Jews.

Volunteers offer home care for the bedridden and homebound; medical staffers provide consultations and lend medical equipment; and other programs attend to the needs of the hearing-impaired and visually impaired.

Across town, members of the pensioners’ club meet at the Or Avner Jewish day school to celebrate holidays, learn Jewish cooking and socialize.

The combined efforts of Chesed Avram, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Lubavitch movement also feed more than 300 elderly at the school and the synagogue.

Another 75 meals are sent throughout the city with a Meals on Wheels program.

The biggest obstacle to expansion, said the director of the pensioners’ club, Marina Ginzburg, is lack of space.

“If we had the space, we could feed 1,000 people,” she said.

Many of these support programs are starting to attract local sponsors, according to St. Petersburg Chief Rabbi Mendel Pewzner.

“They’re learning that we must take care of our elders,” he said.

The hubbub of Chesed Avram contrasts sharply with the silence of Lyubov Maksimova’s apartment in the city center, where the ticking of an antique wall clock is the only sound.

Although Maksimova, 82, is bright and alert, she has been confined to her home for nearly a year because of blindness.

Her main contact with the outside world is when volunteers for Meals On Wheels bring her lunch and dinner three times a week.

Her first husband, a Russian, died at the front. Eight years ago, she lost her second husband to illness.

Emigration has never seriously entered her mind, though she has relatives in Canada and Israel.

“I’m blind. What could I do there?” she said with a shrug. “Here, at least, I’m used to everything.”

Her comment echoes those of many others who have opted to stay in the city of their childhood.

Ties to Leningrad, as most elderly still lovingly call their city, run deep.

Most of them survived the brutal Nazi siege that encircled the city for 900 days during World War II. The siege caused 1 million deaths, but the city was never taken.

With a gold and red medal pinned on her beige sweater, Gersona recounted her days as a sanitary technician at a local hospital.

“One day, I just couldn’t walk to work anymore,” she said. “I just lay at home in my cold, communal apartment.”

Gersona’s husband survived the war, but her son died as a result of a nuclear accident in Chelyabinsk in the 1950s.

What unites these people is their Jewishness.

Maksimova buried the last of her family’s Jewish possessions, a tallit, with her father decades ago.

Yet the faith that made her parents regular synagogue attendees, even throughout the Soviet period, never left her.

“I always went to the synagogue after the war,” she said, her face brightening. “God gave me everything to get through.”

With the fall of the Soviet Union, she can even catch Jewish songs on public radio from time to time.

“I just hope God gives me health in the future, and that’s all,” she added.

For the city’s aging Jews, the passage of time has become their greatest enemy.

Every Saturday, a 79-year-old woman who identified herself as Liza peers down from the women’s gallery in the Great Choral Synagogue, counts the congregants and sighs.

“Each week, less and less,” she says.

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