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Flood Damage to Judaica Collection Shines Light on St. Petersburg Strife

One of Europe’s finest collections of classic Judaica was damaged by flooding in the basement the new Jewish community center in St. Petersburg built and operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

What could have turned into yet another flashpoint in the ongoing conflict between local Jewish activists and officials at the center, called Yesod, instead became a rare instance of cooperation.

It does not solve the larger issue, however, of finding a permanent home for the Judaica collection, which local activists say should rightly be housed in Yesod’s new library room — a contention Yesod officials do not accept.

The flooding occurred the night of July 13 following heavy rains in St. Petersburg.

According to an e-mail letter sent by Dmitry Elyashevich, rector of the St. Petersburg Institute for Jewish Studies and manager of the Judaica collection, some of the books have been “lost irretrievably,” including “valuable 19th-century editions published in Medzhibozh, Vilno, Slavuta.”

Elyashevich called the flooding “a catastrophe,” and worried that more books would be destroyed by dampness and mold if they remained in the flooded basement.

Yesod director Menachem Lepkivker, who is also the JDC director in St. Petersburg, called the damage “minor,” and said he and his staff “responded immediately” once they were informed of the situation.

Indeed, Elyashevich acknowledged Lepkivker’s help in a letter thanking him for stepping in “promptly” and providing two temporary rooms “for transferring the dry books and drying the dampened books,” along with additional personnel to help with these tasks.

But Elyashevich and other local Jewish leaders affiliated with his institute, who have been vocal in their criticism of Yesod since its opening, say the problem would not have occurred had the Judaica collection still not been stored in the Yesod basement, where it was moved 18 months ago.

They say they agreed to move the collection of rare and historical tomes, widely considered the finest in all of the former Soviet Union, into the community center under an agreement that they would be housed in a specially designed library in the new building.

JDC officials, on the other hand, say there was never such an agreement, and rather than holding the books hostage, as the complainants charge, the organization was doing the library a favor.

“The books were stored in the Yesod building as a free service to the library while the director of the library is contemplating the future of his venture,” Lepkivker said.

The multimillion-dollar Yesod center, built by the JDC two years ago in an effort to consolidate the Jewish community’s disparate groups under one roof, has been the center of controversy.

Longtime local Jewish activists accuse the JDC of ignoring their input into the construction and management of the center, while the JDC leadership has responded with accusations of financial mismanagement on the part of these local groups/ The JDC charges further that the groups are unwilling or unable to understand the changing needs of a new, more modern Jewish community.

Some of the more vocal criticism expressed by these local activists to JTA concerns the storage of the Judaica collection in the basement.

Alik Frenkel, who runs a longtime Jewish community center in St. Petersburg that is at odds with Yesod, criticized the situation that led to the flooding.

“I was really surprised that a new building could be flooded,” Frenkel said. “But in a way I wasn’t surprised because really it was terrible conditions for the library.”

In an April interview with JTA, Lepkivker explained that a shift had taken place in the overall concept of the new community center since planning began years ago.

“We re-evaluated all of the assignment of space in the building and a series of changes were made which affected all of the organizations,” he said. “As part of that, the vision of the library was also changed, as not only a place for housing books, but as a cultural and intellectual center for lectures, seminars, groups discussions, small concerts, etc., which also meant that the portion previously designed for books was limited.”

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