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St. Petersburg Jews unveil new Torah scroll for Chanukah

ST. PETERSBURG, Dec. 5 (JTA) — Chanukah at St. Petersburg’s Great Choral Synagogue had a special meaning Thursday night, when community members got their first look at a new Torah scroll donated by friends from abroad. Young and old congregants alike crowded near the aisles as Rabbi Mendel Pewzner and community leader Mark Gruborg carried the red-covered scroll around the sanctuary for the first time. “It’s a fantastic Torah,” said Sonia Kotlyar, a regular at services. The scroll was donated by Edmund and Lily Safer in memory of their son and grandson. The family, which in 1993 also financed the restoration of the small synagogue next door, was first drawn to the synagogue complex during a trip to the city, said Pewzner, who added, “They visited here, and we discussed what our needs were.” In 1995, four Torah scrolls were stolen from the small synagogue, attended mainly by the local Chasidic community. Only two were recovered. Festivities began with the lighting of a huge menorah on the bimah, followed by performances by noted Jewish singers and the synagogue’s male choir. “See how many people are here. It’s definitely a sign of a new beginning,” said Marina Dolgopopova, 30, who compared the crowd of nearly 500 with the surprisingly small turnout for Simchat Torah. A large proportion of those at the festival were young, an encouraging sign in a community that has lost many of its young and middle-age members through emigration. In the foyer outside the sanctuary, 18-year-old yeshiva student Mikhoel Gralyuk helped Zina Kholodenko, 57, light Chanukah candles for what was the second time in her life. He recited the blessings slowly and then translated them into Russian. “We’re starting to do a little better, to become familiar with our culture,” Kholodenko said. Speakers drew parallels between the struggle of the Jewish community in the time of the Maccabees with today’s situation in Russia, where differing viewpoints on how to forge the future of Jewish life in Russia have sometimes hampered close cooperation. “In St. Petersburg, we have an amazing level of cooperation between groups,” said Vladimir Glozman, representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In past years, he added, the community’s growing pains were more acute. “Jews must live in the outside world,” said Gruborg. “But we are obliged to remember that we are Jews, that we have our own laws to observe and thus preserve our peoplehood.”