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Restoration of Saint Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue Begins

In September of 1998, the leadership of St. Petersburg's Jewish community announced the beginning of work aimed at the complete restoration of St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue. The work is targeted toward the synagogue's original architectural appearance and reconstruction of some premises in accordance with the community's present needs as well as with its charity and educational programs. The project is supervised by community leader Tamazi Sepiashvili. The critical restoration needs include maintenance of the worn-out electrical circuits and the heating system, repairs of the roof, strengthening of the building's structure, reconstruction of the ceramic floor tiles and restoration of the unique stained-glass windows. Due to financial support by Lily and Edmond Safra, restoration work has begun.

Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg. Photo: William Brumfield

When asked about the wisdom of pursuing the ambitious restoration project now, Rabbi M.M. Pewzner of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community relates the complex history of the synagogue, and how, despite vicissitudes, it stands today. From this, he draws the lesson "that waiting for the better future to come to Russia is unreasonable and naïve and that one should work for the future now."

The Choral Synagogue has a long, but slowly-moving history. The Russian authorities granted permission to build the Grand Choral Synagogue in 1869. Its location was not approved until 1874. After much discussion about design, it was decided that the building should be built in the Moorish style, then popular throughout Central Europe. Literary critic V. V. Stasov worked with an architectural team that managed to preserve a design acceptable to Russian authorities and the Jewish community.

Thus, despite its exterior exoticism, the synagogue has a traditional interior arrangement. The aron ha-kodesh is at the eastern wall (though, in fact, Jerusalem is located to he south). There is a women's gallery and seating for 1,200 people. It has a domed central section and two lower projecting wings. The entrance is reminiscent of an Islamic gateway - there is an arched entrance with turrets on either side.

The synagogue was consecrated in 1893, and after its completion, Russian authorities ordered all Jewish meeting houses in the city closed - in order that they be moved to the newly completed synagogue. The influx of various groups necessitated the partitioning of the synagogue and this considerably altered the interior arrangement. Even with a capacity of 2,000 people, there would not have been enough room to seat all of St. Petersburg's 15,000 Jews. In 1908, repairs were started in order to attempt to partition the building.

Current restoration work will attempt to reinstate the synagogue's original floor plan.

St. Petersburg's Cemetery Pre-Burial House, an Example of Early Modernism, in Dire Need of Repair

An important 20th -century architectural monument of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community, the pre-burial house at the Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration) Jewish Cemetery, is in serious disrepair, according to Tulane University Professor William Brumfield, an authority on Russian architecture and author of History of Russian Architecture and Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture.

Designed by prominent modernist architect of Yaacov Gevirts, and built between 1908-1910, the structure originally also served as a prayer-house. It is, according to Carol Krinsky, a variation of the 1893 (Grand Choral) synagogue: "Its elevation is simpler, more geometric, and modern. A low-pitched, smooth, green dome, slightly pointed at the top, rests on a square, blind-arched and slit-windowed tan drum that rises above a massive facade. Gray stone blocks flank lighter stonework around the four-centered entrance arch. Receding wings have blind arcades along the sides. Low walls enclose an arcaded forecourt, where Hebrew inscriptions run above pointed arches that are supported by Islamic capitals help on slender, short columns. The front gateway has massive rectilinear and stepped gateposts, reinforcing the impression of weighty geometric form" (Synagogues of Europe, 220).

Gevirts (1879-1942) was an accomplished architect known for his numerous St. Petersburg apartment buildings, but also many specifically Jewish structures, including a Jewish almshouse, and the synagogue in Krakhov (Ukraine) which was recently seriously damaged in a suspicious fire (see JHR II:1-2). He was professor and dean of the architecture faculty at the Academy of Art from 1936 until his death in 1942.

The Jewish cemetery is named for its location next to the Christian Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration) Cemetery. After the tsarist regime was overthrown, the Christian cemetery was renamed "in memory of the victims of January 9 (Bloody Sunday)". Only the Jewish section retains the original name. Oddly then, the Transfiguration cemetery is recognized by Leningrad residents as a Jewish cemetery.

For further reading on the architecture of the synagogue, see Krinsky's Synagogues of Europe (Cambridge. MA, 1985, reprint, Mineola, NY,1998, 217-220).

For more information about the Jews of St. Petersburg, see Beizer's The Jews of St. Petersburg (Philadelphia, 1989).

Novosibirsk Synagogue Desecrated

On the night of March 7-8, a newly rededicated synagogue in Novosibirsk, Russia was desecrated. Press reports indicate that vandals severely damaged much of the interior, ripped Torahs and prayer books to pieces, and painted anti-Semitic slogans and the modified swastika of Russian National Unity (RNU), one of Russia's most dangerous neo-nazi groups, on the walls. As is the case in many other regions, the RNU reportedly has a strong presence in Novosibirsk. Rabbi Berel Lazar of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Moscow called the attack " a pogrom."



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last update: 1/25/00