According to the official annals of the Bolshevik Revolution, on Oct. 25, 1917, the cruiser Aurora signaled the storming of the czar’s palace in St. Petersburg by firing a signal blank round from its bow gun.
Ninety years after that historic event, the city’s Reform Jewish congregation is about to start its own small revolution from its future synagogue, which boasts a nice view of the historic cruiser-turned-museum moored just a few hundred yards away.
The Shaarei Shalom synagogue, which should be completed this year at a cost of about $2 million, will be the only community-owned Reform synagogue in Russia. Several Reform synagogues in Ukraine are historic buildings returned to the community by local governments.
The St. Petersburg synagogue, which was purchased and is being renovated with money from foreign donors, represents the Reform movement’s first new construction in the former Soviet Union.
The movement’s goal of attracting largely secular post-Soviet Jews with its contemporary reading of Jewish tradition has been limited by insufficient funding, so the St. Petersburg project is generating much excitement.
Michael Farbman, 33, Shaarei Shalom’s young and energetic rabbi, is full of pride while giving a tour of the future synagogue.
“Here we’ll have a library with an upper gallery,” he says as he walks into a huge empty space divided into two large rooms, the bare walls and unfinished cement floor covered with a thick layer of concrete dust.
The construction superintendent asks if the workers, who are laying hardwood floors, should stop making noise, but Farbman waves them off with his hand: They can go on. He wants the shul to be finished as quickly as possible.
“The rabbi’s office will be here; there we’ll have a small store. And over there we’ll put the aron kodesh,” Farbman says, using the Hebrew term for the ark that holds a congregation’s Torah scroll.
! Last yea r OROSIR, the Russian branch of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, purchased this 5,000-square-foot space with funds donated by the West London Synagogue, a congregation where Farbman, a native of Belarus, served as assistant rabbi for five years after his ordination at London’s Leo Baeck College. In summer 2004 he returned to Russia to boost Reform activities in the country’s second-largest community.
The new synagogue is located on the ground floor of a large residential building built during Stalin’s time for Soviet Navy admirals. That explains its proximity to the legendary cruiser Aurora.
In post-Soviet years, most of the apartments were privatized by their tenants, and many were resold. The Reform synagogue and community center are being built in a space once occupied by several apartments.
Aside from the synagogue, library and classrooms, the facility also will house a community kindergarten, a youth club and a kitchen. The upper level will be accessible by wheelchair, a rarity in Russia.
If all goes well, Farbman says, the dedication ceremony will take place in June, and the facility should become fully operational by the end of the year. Its $2 million price tag is roughly equivalent to two years of the Reform movement’s budget for all of Russia.
Shaarei Shalom has some 300 members, a tiny fraction of the city’s Jewish population of 80,000 to 100,000. But Farbman hopes the new facility will make the congregation increasingly popular with local Jews.
Rabbi Alexander Lyskovoi, the Reform movement’s Moscow-based head, has similar hopes.
“So far, this is the only successful project” of the Reform movement in the former Soviet Union, he said.
While the movement’s several dozen congregations in Russia are using rented space for their activities, congregations in Minsk and Kiev are likely to get permanent spaces in the near future.
Moscow is the movement’s main priority: It needs $6 million to $8 m! illion t o acquire its own building in the Russian capital. The movement has been able to secure only partial funding for what should be the country’s main Reform synagogue.
But in St. Petersburg — thanks to the generosity of British Jews — the future of the Reform congregation looks more certain.
“I’m very happy,” Farbman says. “There is so much space here.”
One of the first things he plans to do when the synagogue is ready is invite a group of students from the neighboring Nakhimov Naval Academy, a military high school for future navy officers, for a tour.
“We would have them over, drink some tea, show them what a synagogue is, all this to explain that Jews are not such bad people,” Farbman said, smiling.
Farbman was a main force behind the building of the synagogue, but he won’t be around to enjoy it. On July 1 he finishes his three-year commitment to work for the World Union in Russia and will leave for the United States to rejoin family members who immigrated there more than a decade ago. He is applying for a rabbinical position on the East Coast.
Farbman’s departure, and the recent resignation of another Russian Reform rabbi, Nelly Shulman of Moscow, represent a significant personnel shift for a movement that has only six ordained Reform rabbis for all of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Shulman, Russia’s first woman rabbi, resigned earlier this year for personal reasons and is now working in a Moscow investment firm.
Replacing Farbman will be Stas Voitsekhovich, 30, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Moscow is awaiting the arrival of Leonid Bimbat, another young Russian ordained at London’s Leo Baeck College, to take over for Shulman.
But Farbman says that six rabbis for the entire former Soviet Union are not enough. He insists that his movement needs a clearer vision of its future in the region.
“We should learn to think ahead,” he said. “We should have more dedicated emissaries w! ho can b ring this community of highly intellectual and educated people a well-calculated model of the community you want to build.”
Some of that has already been achieved, but the growth is too slow, he says.
“Last year we organized 13 Passover seders in St. Petersburg; this year we have 15,” Farbman said. “So we can say we are growing.”