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With Synagogue Concert, Jews Mark St. Petersburg’s 300 Years

May 28, 2003
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Hundreds of St. Petersburg Jews gathered recently at the Choral Synagogue.

They weren’t coming for a service.

Instead, they were attending an event marking the beginning of festivities for the city’s 300th anniversary, featuring conductor Zubin Mehta and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the recently renovated synagogue.

Before the concert, a 70-year-old watchman at the synagogue who gave his name as Boris Samoilovich looked very pleased by the attention the synagogue was receiving.

“Had it not been for this celebration, I don’t know if the renovation would have ever been finished,” he said, pointing out the freshly painted details of the synagogue interior.

Built in a Moorish style, the impressive 100-year-old synagogue — one of the largest in Europe — was once a reflection of the might, wealth and pride of the Russian Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs who funded the construction of what was poised to be the nation’s major synagogue when St. Petersburg, the European-style city built under the direction of Peter the Great, was still the country’s capital.

It took foreign philanthropists to help bring the grand shul back to its former glory.

The renovation that began a few years ago was mostly funded by the late Swiss Jewish banking tycoon Edmond Safra, and the synagogue concert was funded by Lev Levayev, an Israeli diamond merchant and the largest single sponsor of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s Diaspora minister, who came to St. Petersburg to take part in the festivities, said the idea of a classical music concert held in a synagogue symbolizes the perfect match between world culture and Jewish culture.

Sharansky said there was another reason for him, as an Israeli official, to attend the celebration: “Israel has the largest St. Petersburg Diaspora in the world — about 80,000 people.”

St. Petersburg’s 300th birthday is being celebrated widely throughout the city — from small local festivities to galas at the city’s magnificent palaces, which were built for Russian royalty.

Aside from the concert, the Jewish community is maintaining a relatively low profile during the celebrations.

The community’s chairman, Mark Grubarg, believes”this is an important function of the Jewish community — to maintain its presence at various levels during such celebrations.”

Yet Grubarg noted that the Jewish community should remain aware that “too much Jewish presence” in the commemorative events could be irritating to “some of the people” in St. Petersburg.

“Today the authorities are way ahead of the ordinary people in their understanding of the importance of harmonious and tolerant relations with the Jewish community.”

According to Menachem-Mendel Pevzner, St. Petersburg’s chief rabbi, the city has a Jewish community of 100,000, the second largest in Russia after Moscow.

“Jews have always been numerous in St. Petersburg,” Grubarg said.” And historically these have always been Jews of some special sort, prominent in arts and science.”

While it is no longer the nation’s capital — the Soviet government moved to Moscow in 1918 — St. Petersburg takes special pride in its reputation as the cradle of Russian European culture.

Similarly, the city’s Jewish community here prides itself in the city’s former status as the center for Jewish publications, social services and the flourishing cultural life that was all but gone after the first few decades of the Bolshevik rule.

The Jews of St. Petersburg now benefit from dozens of educational, welfare and cultural opportunities that were revived after the fall of communism.

But today’s Jewish leaders here remain preoccupied with their efforts to reach out to the overwhelmingly assimilated and intermarried Jewish population.

And they strongly believe that the special status of St. Petersburg and its Jewry requires a special approach — like a classical music concert by a world-famous orchestra held in the synagogue.

“To us, every way that brings a Jew closer to his Judaism is always important,” said Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis and the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, of which the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue is part.

To Mehta, the Indian-born maestro of Israel’s main orchestra for the past 34 years, the concert had its own special meaning: Half of his musicians were born in the former Soviet Union — and some were educated in the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

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