ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (JTA) – The taste of liberation is spreading in St. Petersburg. It tastes like a saltless cracker: matzah.
That’s because, with the recent opening of St. Petersburg’s new synagogue on the outskirts of the city, many of the 20,000 or so Jews who live in nearby neighborhoods will be celebrating Passover for the first time, local Jewish outreach officials say.
“Ninety-five percent of the Jews who have started coming here – 95 percent – never went to any synagogue before,” said Rabbi Benzion Lipsker, spiritual leader of the new shul at Maor, the Jewish community center that opened here in December 2006.
The Maor synagogue officially opened March 16 in the city’s northwest Vyborgsky region, where 20 percent of St. Petersburg’s Jews live.
Igor Shapiro, Maor’s program coordinator, says the JCC is trying to reach area Jews to teach them Jewish traditions. Passover presents an ideal opportunity. “We will call, e-mail or text-message each person we have in our database and invite them to celebrate Passover with us,” he said.
Shapiro is emblematic of the kinds of Jews he is trying to reach: This year will be his first-ever seder too.
“I grew up in this part of the city,” he told JTA. “I am Jewish. My patronymic is Israelovich, but I had never been to a synagogue until last year. I am new to all this.”
Like many middle-aged Russian Jews, Shapiro vaguely recalls his grandparents and great-grandparents baking matzah at Passover, but his familiarity with the holiday stops there.
After seeing an advertisement for the JCC program coordinator position, Shapiro said he decided to end his career in sales, return to his roots and work to “help the Jewish people.” He joined Maor in October.
His outreach mission is mirrored elsewhere in St. Petersburg, where Jewish organizations are figuring out ways to involve more Jews in the celebration of Passover.
Lipsker said establishing a center for Jewish life in the city’s northwest Vyborgsky region, rather than merely relying on the synagogue downtown, is key to reaching out to the unaffiliated Jews here.
“We brought the synagogue to the people,” said Lipsker, who is also the JCC’s director. “Many of the Jews who came to us when we opened didn’t know how to open a prayer book.”
Now, he said, some 60 to 70 locals participate in the center’s activities, and about 30 come regularly to pray. “These Jews now know that a synagogue is not a scary place,” Lipsker said. “It is not inaccessible. It is here for everyone, in their palms.”
Lipsker estimates that 150 to 200 guests will attend the synagogue’s communal Passover seder on April 19. He hopes the holiday will bring even more Jews from the area into the Jewish community center and out of their religion-free Soviet past.
“Many families don’t know how to have a seder and then, of course, there are many Jews here without families,” Lipsker said. “So we will have a large seder at Maor. All the Jews that come here are one family.”
Elsewhere in the city, at the expansive Yesod JCC, project coordinator Marina Delnik is organizing the filming of a Passover video that features local students as actors.
The film is divided into five four-minute segments showing how students react when confronted with memories or thoughts about their ancestors.
“After each segment we will turn off the movie and the students will discuss what they saw,” Delnik said. “We will ask them questions, such as, ‘What will happen to this student? Why did he react in that way? What would you do if you were in their shoes?’
“The idea is to familiarize the students with Passover and remind them of the importance of knowing one’s family history and ancestry.”
Each Passover film and discussion meeting, from April 15 to 17, will be followed by a group matzah-baking class. Yesod has invited middle school and high school classes from local Jewish and non-Jewish schools to participate.
Chesed Avraham, a Jewish welfare center, also will be running activities aimed at familiarizing the elderly Jews of St. Petersburg with Passover traditions.
“When a Jewish holiday approaches, we begin introducing it even a few weeks before the actual holiday,” said Svetlana Bernstein, the director of Chesed Avraham’s day center for Jews older than 70. “The people we serve grew up under Soviet rule, under atheistic ideology, so they have practically no sense of Jewish traditions.”
Fourteen groups of seniors participate in Chesed Avraham’s program, with the 20 to 30 participants in each group from a different city neighborhood. The seniors visit the center every two weeks.
Because most of the groups will not be at the center to observe the first and second seders on April 19 and 20, Bernstein has planned model seders to be held before the holiday.
“We will prepare a seder plate on each day and our specialists, lecturers and volunteers will explain to them the significance of the holiday,” she said. “We will tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt and show how we celebrate our freedom during Passover.”
The Grand Choral Synagogue in downtown St. Petersburg also will be hosting a Passover seder, on April 19.