Formation of the Jewish community
The first Jews in St. Petersburg
The first Jews appeared in St. Petersburg right after its foundation. However, they were descendants of converts, invited by Peter I to participate in the city construction and therefore have little connection to the history of the city’s Jewish community formation.
Officially, according to the decree by Empress Catherine I, residence of Jews was banned not only in the capital but also throughout the whole country. Yet, sometimes for profit’s sake Russian Emperors would violate their own decrees. That is why Jews whose service was required by the court were allowed to temporarily live in St. Petersburg.
The majority of Jews coming to St. Petersburg at that time was made up by financiers, merchants and physicians. In general they all were well-to-do people and had servants as well as families. That is why a Jewish household almost always had a minyan – 10 adult males necessary for a community prayer. Thus, although there were no official synagogues or prayer houses in St. Petersburg, Jews held prayer services at their homes.
Empress Anna Ioannovna’s rule was marked by severe oppression of Jews. In 1740 she signed a decree of expulsion of Jews from Ukraine. In 1742 this decree was approved by Empress Elizabeth, who also insisted on departure of all the Jews from Ukrainian and Russian townstowns and villages with their property.
Empress Catherine II pursued a double-faced policy towards Jews. As christianity in its Russian Orthodox form was the official state religion of the Russian Empire, she had to consider the public and church opinion. Jews were consequently forbidden to come to St. Petersburg. However, for the sake of the state’s prosperity she allowed some of them to reside in the capital.
In the late XVIII сentury, after the three partitions of Poland, Russia obtained great territories in the West of the Empire, inhabited not only by Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukranians, but also by Jews. In the late XVIII century Jews became frequent guests of the capital. Among those coming to St.Petersburg were not only merchants, but also medical people wishing to take an examination at the Medical Collegium in order to get a certificate giving the right to practice. The capital was also visited by deputations of Jews from the province. Thus, in 1785 a delegation of Jews from Belarus consisting of 6 people succeeded in interceding for improving the life conditions of Jewish population on the territories joined to Russia.
Formation of the first Jewish community
The first Jewish community of St. Petersburg grouped around a big merchant and businessman Abram Peretz who resided in Policemaster-general Chicherin’s house in Nevsky prospect since late 1770-ies. The community was formed of Shklov natives, called ‘maskilim from Shklov’. These had been officially invited to St. Petersburg as representatives of Jewish population for participation in the work of the so-called Jewish Committee, founded in 1802. Together with the Jewish deputies arrived their family members, personnel and house servants. In the same 1802 Jews bought from the Lutheran community a plot at Volkov Lutheran cemetery for Jewish burials. The history of St. Petersburg Jewish community keeps its official count since this date.
Jewish deputies and their families were temporal but rather noticeable dwellers of the capital in the early XIX century. They resided in St. Petersburg on legal basis. But far more Jews – contractors, merchants, craftsmen - stayed in the capital despite the official ban. The capital of the Empire continued to attract Jews as the center of business, political and cultural life of the country. By 1826 the number of Jews residing in the city amounted to 248.
In 1789 Rabby Schneur Zalman (Alter Rebbe), the founder of Chassidic movement Chabad, lived in St.Petersburg as prisoner. Denounced by his opponents as a traitor to the Russian government, he was brought to Petropavlovskaia Krepost’ prison, but soon was found innocent and freed.
The community that grouped around Peretz eventually came apart though Jews continued to live in St. Petersburg. A new community or, to be more precise, communities appeared in the capital in the late 1820-ies. Those were soldiers’ communities. Since 1828 Jews began to be recruited into Russian army. St. Petersburg was the biggest center of military concentration and among the soldiers of its garrison there were Jews. The law allowed Jewish soldiers, like all other privates and sergeants, to have their families residing with them.
By 1855 many Jewish soldiers got retired. Later by Alexander II’s decrees they were granted the right to reside anywhere in the Empire, the capital included. These retired privates and sergeants were not yet old. They received very small pension and, having families, had to look for jobs to earn their living. Many of them became craftsmen. Those who did not master any craft, went to serve in fire brigades or city police.
By the end of 1850-ies the capital had a rather numerous Jewish population living there on legal grounds.
Among Jewish soldiers of St. Petersburg garrison a significant part retained the faith of their ancestors. In the late 1830-ies a decree was issued which allowed privates and sergeants of Jewish origin to perform in their free time the rites in accordance with the laws of their religion. This created the need for prayer premises.
Jewish soldiers wished to organize chapels right in the barracks. To do this, several families shared the rent of a flat near the quarters and used the vacated premises in the family barracks as a chapel. At first the authorities put up with this situation but later Jews were ordered to move the chapels away from the barracks. So the chapels moved to private flats near the barracks.
The authorities did not want to specially hire rabbis for the army. So for the performance of Jewish rites rabbis were appointed from among the soldiers. Thus the first rabbis of small dispersed Jewish communities were soldiers. Of course, these rabbis were little educated in the matters of Judaism, but they knew the rites and the words of prayers. In 1859 it was for the first time that a retired soldier – a minor St. Petersburg police officer, Iossel Ioff, was officially appointed assistant to a rabbi. He got this position due to patronage of count A.A. Suvorov, governor-general of St. Petersburg. Known are facts when soldier rabbis were officially decorated for their service.
Construction of the Synagogue
Emperor Alexander II lessens the restrictions for Jews’ residence in St. Petersburg
In the very first months of Alexander II’s reign one of the major suppliers of the Russian army, hereditary honorary citizen of Russia Evzel Ginzburg submitted a memorandum to the Royal Name, in which he gave reasons in favour of lessening the restrictions for several categories of Jews. This was in tune with general liberal ideas of the young Emperor. As the result Jews – retired soldiers, I-st guild merchants, people with academic degrees (later – with just higher education) as well as several kinds of craftsmen were allowed to reside outside the Pale of Settlement, St. Petersburg included. This permission also extended to family members as well as a specified number of servants.
Jews, legally residing in the capital, were granted the right to invite rabbis from other places. St. Petersburg Jewish community was growing fast, and so was the number of chapels. By this time there were Jewish chapels in Saint-Petersburg other than soldiers’.
The qualitative changes in the composition of the new community. New community’s Rabbis
The quantitative growth of the community was accompanied by qualitative changes in its composition. A new elite of St. Petersburg Jewry was formed, consisting of well-to-do and educated people. Jewish bankers and businessmen began to play an increasingly important role in the city’s life. At the same time Jewish intelligentsia (doctors, translators, professors) gradually came into existence. Overall, by 1868 among St. Petersburg Jews (males) the literate made 72% (among the Russian Orthodox population of the capital the share of the literate was as low as 54%). Such a community needed new and educated rabbis. The first St. Petersburg rabbi with a university degree was Abram Isaya Neiman, a graduate of dpt philosophy of Wendzburg University. His appointment was confirmed in 1864, again due to patronage of count A.A. Suvorov, governor-general of St. Petersburg. The next rabbi was Neiman Abram Drabkin, graduate in theology of Breslau University. In 1908 Moisei Aizenshtadt, graduate of Berlin University was appointed chief rabbi of St. Petersburg.
Obtaining the permission to construct the Synagogue. Committee on construction.
On February 12, 1865 the Emperor approved the Statute by the Ministerial Committee on establishing economical department at the prayer house of St. Petersburg Jewish community, not entrusted with religious authority.
On September 1, 1869 the Emperor approved the Regulation by the Ministerial Committee on permission to construct the synagogue to replace the existing chapels.
As early as September 11 representatives of all the capital’s chapels elected the committee on construction of the synagogue, headed by Horace Ginzburg. Fundraising for construction began. The greatest contribution was made by Evzel Ginzburg (70 thousand rubles), donations of 25 thousand were given by S.S. Polyakov and I.A. Vavelberg, of 10 thousand – by A.M. Varshavsky and A.I. Zak. The other 170 contributors gave from 7 thousand (Leon Rozental) to 2 rubles (Dr. Samsonovich from Kiev).
Half of the seats were to be sold in hereditary ownership and this money was to be used for construction. When later the money raised proved to be insufficient, the committee had to take a loan at St. Petersburg-Moscow Commercial Bank (70 thousand rubles) and then also ask Horace Ginzburg, brothers Samuel and Daniel Polyakov for another loan.
Temporary Synagogue building
In 1870 the community board purchased a building on Fontanka embankment. The 1st floor was occupied by the office, the 2nd by the prayer hall. This building was regarded as temporary premises for the period of synagogue’s construction. The community leaders wished the synagogue to become not only the house of prayer for St. Petersburg Jews, but also the symbol of the soon-to-be-achieved civil equality for all Russian Jewry. These illusory hopes were pinned on both liberal reforms taking place at that period and the mere fact of legal existence of the Jewish community in the capital.
Finding the building plot
The building plot was still to be found. St. Petersburg Policemaster-general, F.F. Trepov, forbade the purchase of the site at the corner of Gorokhovaya street and Fontanka embankment on account of its being close to a Russian Orthodox church building.
The attempt to purchase a plot in Bolshoi Tzarskoselsky prospect near Obukhovsky bridge was also a failure. At last in the summer of 1872 secretary of the community L.O. Gordon found a plot at the corner of Ofitzerskaya and Bolshaya Masterskaya street, but Trepov forbade the purchase once again, saying that "A Jewish synagogue should not be built in а residential to avoid rabble gathering in crowds and the consequent dirt and rubbish”.
It was only after Trepov’s dismissal in 1878, 10 years after the beginning of negotiations, that the community managed to get the permission to purchase the house of A.A. Rostovsky with the adjoining plot in Bolshaya Masterskaya street. It was bought on January 16, 1879 for 65 thousand rubles.
Discussion on building design
The discussion on the architectural project started in 1878. L.O. Gordon maintained that “when building their temples, Jews never adhered to any hereditary style, but borrowed the style from the leading nation in that time and place”, and retained the inner sense of their religion “paying little attention to the outer looks”. V.V. Stasov, a famous Russian art critic, on the contrary, was of the opinion that the style of the future synagogue should be definitely close to Moorish.
In July 1879 the competition was announced. The special jury headed by V.V.Stasov chose the project by Bakhman and Shaposhnikov. But when in March 1880 the design was submitted for Emperor’s approval, Alexander II ordered to “remake the design at a more modest scale”.
It was a blow to the community. Fortunately, the architects agreed to make a new design for free.
Finally on May 16, 1883 Emperor Alexander III approved the draft design of the synagogue. After the completion of the project in 1883 the construction under the management of the Construction Committee headed by A.A. Kaufman started. The architect and superintendent of work was A.V. Malov; S.O. Klein and B.I. Girshovich were appointed his assistants. In summer 1883 the construction work was suspended till 1884 on account of the need to rework the design to make it cheaper. The new curator of the project was now N.L. Benois, who enjoyed great confidence of the Royal Family and the government. S.S. Polyakov was now elected chairman of the Construction Committee.
Consecration of the Small Synagogue
On the first day of Sukkoth, October 13, 1886 the Small synagogue was consecrated. Its stucco ceiling was created by sculptor Moisei Israelevich Anolik, Aron-ha-Kodesh was made by cabinet-maker Berman and gilder Solomon Antovil. The building of the Small synagogue housed the Temporary synagogue until the Grand hall was ready. Later it was used as Chasidic merchants' chapel.
Completion of construction. Consecration of the Grand SynagogueIn 1888 the cupola of the Grand synagogue was decorated with an ormanental design and the construction was finished. In the next five years the interior decoration took place. The main painting, finishing and wood works were performed by contractor M. Gimmelfarb, the benches on the 1st floor were produced by cabinet-maker Berman, the iron gratings of the stairs were manufactured at the plant owned by Isidor Goldberg. Aron-ha-Kodesh of the Grand synagogue was donated by Evzel Ginzburg’s sons in honour of their father’s memory.
On December 8, 1893 the ceremony of official consecration of the Grand synagogue took place. It was a real feast for all Russian Jewry. The leaders of the community opened the central door with a silver key and brought seven Torah scrolls into the hall. The Chairman of the Community Board baron H. O. Ginzburg carried the first scroll. He was followed by M.A. Varshavsky and L.Ya. Polyakov carrying kindled candles.
Thus after a 24-year epic of getting the permission and construction, St. Petersburg Grand Choral synagogue was opened. At its opening ceremony the rabbi expressed his hope that the new synagogue “will become the starting point of the Future Temple, the temple of universal love and peace”.
Synagogue in the period of 1894 – October 1917
Closing down of old chapels
Opening of the Synagogue was not an altogether joyful event for St. Petersburg Jews. Since this moment according to the decree by Committee of Ministers No 1869, all the existing chapels were to be closed. The synagogue hall was designed for a 1200-member congregation and could not accomodate all the Jewish population of the city. Even premises intended to be utility rooms and basements began to be used as chapels. Besides, closing down of chapels excluded suburban Jews from the possibility of performing religious rites because of the distance which exceeded the allowed walking limit for Shabbat.
In the course of next 10 years Jews from St. Petersburg suburbs addressed the authorities asking them to permit re-opening of chapels closed in 1894, but were invariably refused.
The premises of the 7 officially existing Jewish chapels were closed, and their congregations transferred to the new synagogue. Those of Chassidic orientation moved to the Small synagogue, the others – to the premises of the Grand synagogue. This required equipping the premises with multiple partitions.
Subsequent works – decorating the synagogue and installing a stone fence
The board of the community planned to continue the synagogue decoration and equipment. A chandelier for the Wedding hall, named in the memory of Alexander II, was purchased. The drafts for Aron-ha-Kodesh (the place to store the Torah scrolls) and Bima (the elevation in the synagogue from which the Torah scrolls are read) were prepared. Replacing plank flooring by marble slabs was also contemplated, but this plan failed.
Since the gas illumination of the hall was insufficient, the formerly rejected project of electric illumination was brought into life in 1898.
In 1905 the specially created commission was charged with the responsibility of constructing a stone fence along the territory of the synagogue to replace the ramshackle wooden fence. The new fence was to have an iron grille and two gates, made according to drawings by artist Ropet. The project was approved by the Technical department of the City Hall on July 29, 1905. But it was only in 1909 that the needed money was gathered and all the necessary works were performed, including installation of cut-glass lamps.
Sale of seats to the congregation
After the consecration the synagogue board began to sell seats to the congregation. It was possible to buy them both for constant use and for one year period. Weddings were also held in the main hall of the synagogue, there even were 7 classes of the ceremony organization differing in decoration and cost.
The specifics of the service
Much attention was paid to the musical part of the service. To achieve top-level performance, such specialists from Musical commission as Boguslavsky, Goldenblum and others were invited.
There were two cantors, a choir leader, nine adult members of the choir and 6 boys; overall there could be up to 22 people singing.
Since 1894 calendars for each synagogal year were published containing the timetable of the prayers in the Grand hall and the Small synagogue.
Community board activities
The Grand Choral synagogue as the successor of the Temporary prayer house for educated Jews, became the center of Jewish religious life in St. Petersburg. Its leaders made their best to fulfill the functions of the leading body of the Jewish society, including the life of chapels which in 1904, after the repeal of the ban, started to appear outside the synagogue. Community leaders’ activities also included different kinds of charity, such as supporting the library of the Society for Jewish enlightenment and Jewish education for the youth. Thus, teaching Jewish subjects to Jewish gymnasium students was organized. A Jewish college was also functioning. Its building was constructed in 1897 through the donations of the congregation on the territory belonging to the synagogue.
Shortage of funds for community activities
Although all the Jews constantly residing in St. Petersburg were members of the community, the number of full members who paid the obligatory membership fee was at the end of the XIX century as small as 200 people. As a result, the synagogue management always felt the lack of material resources even though several active members made annual contributions which far exceeded the required 25 rubles: D.S. Polyakov gave 2400 rubles, heirs of E.G. Ginzburg – 2000, A.I. Vavelberg – 360, I.A. Varshavsky – 240 rubles. Besides, members of the congregation paid for being called to read the Torah, for performing the rites, and many of them made contributions to charity funds.
Death of Horace Ginzburg and election of the new community chairman
Horace Ginzburg died on February 17, 1909. His body was brought from his flat in Konnogvardeisky boulevard, 17 to the synagogue for a special ceremony and then taken to the Warsaw railway station to be transported to Paris and buried in the family crypt. The newspapers said that the deceased “had cancer”, that “in the previous months he was bedridden and suffered severely. The day before death he was in agony but retained consciousness and the power of speech”. His family, when asked to bury him in St. Petersburg, politely refused, as the ante-mortem will of the deceased was to be buried next to his beloved wife, who died in her youth. On February 25, 1909, the day of his burial in Paris, a ceremony was held in St. Petersburg synagogue.
After Horace Ginzburg his son, the great Jewish scholar D. H. Ginzburg was elected chairman of the synagogue management, but he died only a year after his father’s death. The Ginzburgs had been at the head of the community for more than half a century. In 1910 M.A Varshavsky was elected new chairman of the community.
In 1913, on the 4th anniversary of H.O. Ginzburg's death a ceremony was held in the synagogue to do honor to his memory. After the ceremony the museum named after him was officially inaugurated. The museum exhibited the gifts presented to him in the day of his 75th jubilee as well as the garlands put on his coffin.
Growth in number of community membersIn the period after 1910 Saint-Petersburg Jews became increasingly interested in the religious life. By 1916 the number of full members of the congregation was 500. Together with those paying the fee partially this number amounted to 700. The overall number of people somehow connected with the synagogue and its institutions was approximately 3000. Besides, about 1500 Jews attended Jewish chapels (of these 7 were on the territory of the synagogue and 11 outside it).
Thus, the number of Jews in the capital, directly or indirectly connected with Jewish religious life, the center of which was the synagogue, totalled approximately 8 thousand males, not counting their family members and Jews praying at home.
War against Germany (1914)
After Germany declared war on Russia on July 19, 1914, the life of the Jews residing in the capital changed dramatically. On July 22nd, in the synagogue a solemn public prayer for the victory was held, which was attended by a great number of people. Headed by rabbi M.G. Aizenshtadt, the members of the congregation began to form charity foundations, which first of all supported the Jewish Committee on Assistance to War Actions Victims. This foundation mostly helped Jews, who were expelled from the regions of military actions under the accusation of assisting the enemy. The community also supported and financed the Commission for helping the wounded; the St. Petersburg Jewish community 100-bed City hospital for the wounded of all confessions; mobile field-ambulances, etc.
The February revolution (1917)
Dethronement of Nicolas II and the decree on repeal of all national and denominational restrictions were warmly welcomed by Petrograd Jewry. This decree was announced just before Passover. During the Passover service rabbi M.G. Aizenshtadt preached upon this event in the Grand Choral synagogue. According to proposal by rabbies Aizenshtadt and Katzelenbogen during all Passover days in all Petrograd prayer houses Jews recited the full Hallel prayer, which, with rare exceptions, is read but partially.
Yet juridical equality in rights did not guarantee real equality and safety for Jews. Indeed, in the very 1917 first Jewish pogroms in Petrograd took place.
Synagogue in the Soviet epoch
City’s religious life after the October Revolution (1917)
While in the first post-Revolution years Bolshevik authorities put up with the existence of Jewish cultural organizations, their attitude towards the religious community was strictly irreconcilable from the mere beginning, because they could not bring its leaders under control. Commissar of the Jewish department S.Ya. Rapoport proposed to simply close it “as it is adverse in terms of its name and composition, and useless and redundant in its activities”. In summer 1918 the commissar of the National Bank was given the following instruction: “All Jewish institutions, including charity ones, cannot realize their checks without permission given by the Commissariat for Jewish affairs”. In December 1918 district chapels communities were closed. In he same month the decree signed by G.E. Zinoviev announced dissolution of the Jewish community.
Under these circumstances the primary goal for Jews was to get the authorities’ permission to register the synagogue in order to obtain a possibility to resume religious activities. For this purpose the synagogue leading body called “the twenty” was elected. The first agreement with District executive committee on using the synagogue building and property was signed in the middle 1920-ies.
For the next 6 years the city’s Jewish religious organizations acted separately without any legal basis. It was not until 1923, when Narkomnatz (People’s Commissariat for Affairs of Different National Groups) was wound up, that the most active members of the religious community were able to start efforts towards its restoration. In October 1924 the first meeting of Leningrad Jewish religious community (LJRC) founders took place. It resolved: “Considering that a number of Jewish religious institutions existing de facto and tracing back to the time of first Jews’ appearing in the city, are not registered, the project of a charter uniting the Synagogue and its institutions, is to be approved».
The covering letter to the charter project, submitted to Lenispolkom (Leningrad Executive Committee) said that without the cemetery and its upkeep, without burials according to Jewish ritual, without mikvah and kosher meat, matzo bakery and rabbinate the Jewish community loses any meaning. The letter also stated that “Sample Charter of Religious Societies”, worked out by the authorities, did not take the specifics of Jewish religious life into account. The charter proposed by LJRC’s formulated the community’s objectives and tasks as follows: “Managing the Jewish religious activities and the Choral synagogue, organizing prayer meetings, managing the religious property and making civil deals for this purpose, organizing theological courses”. According to the charter, any adult person “belonging to this cult” could become a member of the community.
The chart was approved with the exception of the paragraph concerning theological courses. On January, 26, 1925 the Leningrad Jewish religious community was officially registered.
On this occasion a special meeting took place in the Choral synagogue. The board of the community published an appeal to the Jews of the city urging them to join the community and expressing hope for future normalization of religious life. Unfortunately, these hopes were doomed to fail.
Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in Leningrad
In 1924 – 1927 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, head leader of Habad Hassidim, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch made Leningrad his place of residence. He came there from Rostov-na-Donu, where he had got during the Civil War, followed by the nearest circle of friends and supporters. For a short period of time Leningrad became the world center of Habad movement. At first Bolsheviks coveted support of such an influential religious leader, but, as their attempts failed, they turned to defamatory press campaign and then to repressions. In June 1927 Rebbe was arrested and put to internal prison of security and political police department (otherwise called “Shpalerka”) under accusation of being engaged in anti-soviet activity. After a brief investigation Rebbe was sentenced to death. However, due to intercession of the world public organizations and Political Red Cross (headed by E.Peshkova, ex-wife of prominent Soviet writer Maxim Gorky), the death penalty was substituted by imprisonment and then by exile to Kostroma. Later on the term of exile was shortened. Very soon after Rebbe was released and in a few months’ time obtained permission to leave the Soviet Union.
Management of the community after the October revolution
For a short period after October 1917 M.G. Aizenshtadt continued to fulfill the duties of a rabbi. Failing to establish good relationships with the authorities, he left the community for a while hoping to wait through the period of Bolshevik rule. Later he came back but focused his action mostly on Jewish enlightenment. In 1923 rabbi Aizenshtadt left for Paris, and the duties of a rabbi passed to David Kazelenbogen, the community’s spiritual rabbi. After Aizenshtadt’s departure he remained the only Jewish religious leader in the city. Kazelenbogen took an active part in the community life trying to do his best until his very death in 1931. In 1928 he asked the authorities to permit celebration dedicated to the 35th anniversary of the synagogue, but was refused.
Authorities’ ban on fund-raising among believers.
The law banned fund-raising among the believers for religious purposes, which drove the synagogue board into a corner. There were no other sources to cover the community expenses after liquidation of the rich donators, yet commercial activity was forbidden and all the funds expropriated. Any voluntary donations could be easily treated as fund-raising. So the community leaders had to dodge, collecting donations under different pretences, but this was a very risky undertaking and could be easily considered violation of the law. Besides, the funds gathered were not enough even for maintaining the synagogue building. Meanwhile the city authorities annually checked the building and made acts revealing the shortcomings in its conditions which were to be improved in no time under the danger of breaking the agreement on using the building.
Closing of the Synagogue in 1930
The activity of the synagogue board was closely connected with that of Leningrad Jewish religious community board, with which it shared its premises.
By the decree by Presidium of Leningrad City Council (Lensovet) of June 29, 1929 г. Jewish religious community was liquidated as “bourgeois” and “nationalistic”. Later, on January 17, 1930 by the decision of the Presidium of Leningrad District Council the synagogue was also closed. By way of pretext, it was claimed that the synagogue served the interests of Jewish bourgeoisie and aristocracy, while working Jews did not attend it and the Jewish House for Enlightenment had no suitable premises. But after Jews complained to VtziK, the supreme legislative body of the state at that time, the synagogue was re-opened on June 1, 1930. It was an exceptional case, which caused discontent on the part of local authorities.
Unfortunately, whilst the synagogue was closed, the most valuable part of its property, both general and ritual, was expropriated mostly in favor of the Judaism department of the Anti-religious museum. Some of it was taken into the State Fund (Gosfond), which accumulated all the property expropriated from rich houses, and to the so-called Leningrad Region House of Atheist. By the early 1930s, the majority of Jewish prayer houses of the city were closed, and in 1938 the rest of them together with the mikvah suffered the same fate.
Management of the Synagogue in 1930s – early 1940s.
At the end of 1920-ies rabbi Kazelenbogen left office due to his elderly age, and in 1931 he died. Till 1934 the position of rabbi was not occupied because of the difficulties in getting the authorities’ approval of the potential candidates and due to the lack of funds in the community.
Finally, rabbi Mendel Gluskin from Minsk was invited. After coming to the city at the beginning of 1934, he got into a very difficult situation with constant checks and calling to the authorities. In violation of the agreement, he was refused the right to reside in the synagogue building and had to look elsewhere for a place to live. For some time he lived with the family of Herz Davidovoch Kazelenbogen, son of rabbi Kazelenbogen and member of the synagogue board. In November 1936 rabbi M. Gluskin died. After that there was no rabbi till 1943 when Abram Ruvomovich Lubanov, who came to Leningrad in the middle of 193ies, was appointed to this position. Before assuming rabbi’s position Lubanov lived in the synagogue premises officially as a warden, while actually performing the functions of assistant to the rabbi.
Members of the board were arrested time and again, but every time new courageous people came to take their places.
The atmosphere in the Synagogue and relationship with the authorities in 1930s-1940s
The situation in the synagogue in those years can be easily illustrated with an official report by one of its board members: “I have managed to remove from the synagogue all the rituals: slaughtering of the poultry, brith-milah, weddings, divorces and other attributes. I guarantee that during my being here there was no preaching by rabies or maggids, and if they started, they were immediately banned”.
The city’s authorities set a task to examine the possibility of turning the synagogue’s main hall into a children’s theatre – “Theatre of Young Spectators”. On March 6, 1941 the «Report on the possibilities of utilizing the building of Choral synagogue” was made. It stated that such a transformation is impossible since the hall is not fit for it and there are no premises for artists’ chambers and decoration storehouse. But it suits for concerts and movie shows.
It may be safely surmised that Leningrad Choral synagogue was not closed only because of World War II.
Synagogue during the siege
During the siege of the city the deceased Jews were brought into the yard of the synagogue; in winter 1941/1942 they lay in piles, and between them there was a path trampled down the snow from the gates to the entrance of the building. From the synagogue yard the corpses were taken to common graves in Jewish Preobrazhenskoye cemetery. But life did not stop in the frozen premises of the Small synagogue, ceremonies were held on Shabbaths and on holidays. It often happened in that period of famine that people found energy to come, but were unable to get back home.
Synagogue in post-war times
After the war religious life was, as before, under constant supervision of the authorities. One of the Jewish activists, M.-M. Epstein, who had served in the synagogue for years, was arrested for “Zionist and counter-revolution activities”.
In 1950-ies Gedalia Pechersky, chazzan of the synagogue, initiated a petition to the authorities asking the permission to open Jewish history and Hebrew courses. He also managed to organize an underground system of aid to needy old people and was not afraid to make complaints to the General Office of Public Prosecutor against the Official Representative on Matters Connected with Religious Cults, who hampered the work of the community. The petitions were rejected. Pechersky was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
At that time a new anti-Semitic and anti-religious campaign was launched by the authorities. In 1962-1964 it was forbidden to bake matzos and to make burials at Jewish Preobrazhenskoye cemetery.
The activities of the youth in 1950s -1970s
By the middle 1950s it seemed that the efforts of Communist party ideologists had borne their fruit. The number of Jews attending the Synagogue was lessening. Some of them grew old and died, other were unwilling to demonstrate their interest in Judaism, being afraid for the fates of their children and grandchildren. Even on Simchat-Torah the yard of the Synagogue was almost empty. However, this state of things only lasted a few years. Jewish youth, who constantly experienced the violation of their rights for study and work proclaimed by the Constitution, began to realize both the obvious injustice of Soviet reality and the necessity to change their position. First of all they started to search for like-minded people. By the end of 1950s there were increasingly more young people on Simchat-Torah in the Synagogue. The authorities had to send to Lermontovsky prospect (the avenue where the Synagogue is located) detachments of militiamen and druzhinniks (voluntary police aid squads). The prospect near the Synagogue was blocked by frightening black wagons for transporting the arrested.
KGB agents would mix with the crowd in the Synagogue yard and write down the names of the students present. These students were then expelled from Komsomol (Young Communist League) and from their universities. The situation was so serious that Communist party committees of several universities ordered Jewish lecturers to organize the explanatory work among the students before Simchat-Torah.
But these efforts were to no avail. Some students attended the festivals to meet a future spouse and nobody knows how many Jewish couples married after meeting each other on Autumn holidays. At the same place, in the yard of the Synagogue those who wanted to study Hebrew and Jewish history or repatriate found like-minded people.
Repairs of the synagogue before the Olympic games in Moscow (1980).
In post-revolutionary years no serious repairs were done in the synagogue building.
On the threshold of Olympics-1980 held in Moscow and Leningrad, Leningrad Synagogue got into the number of the main sites of interest. That is why in 1978 the state allocated considerable resources to its repairs. The repair works were fulfilled under the supervision of the Community board chairman, Kal’man Afanas’evich Plotkin.
It was then that the additional beams were installed in the building and some premises were divided into two stories.
“Refuznik” movement in 1970s-1980s.
In 1970 a group of young Zionists made an attempt to hijack an airplane from the airport Rzhevka to Sweden. Their purpose was to organize a press-conference and tell the whole world about the real position of Jews in the USSR. These plans were doomed to fail; the plotters were arrested and imprisoned during the capture. Nevertheless in early 1970s the authorities started to let some Jews out of the country. Not that it lasted for long. By the early 1980s the flow of emigrants was completely blocked, so a circle of “refuzniks” (Jews whose application for emigration was rejected) was formed in the country. Jews, forced to stay in the USSR, had to think about the possibilities of national revival “here and now”. Often the synagogue became the centre of their communication. By early 1970s the majority of Leningrad Jews knew nothing of Judaism. Yet on the holidays, especially on Simchat-Torat, many young people gathered in the synagogue and around.
According to the plenipotentiary on the religious affairs, Zharinov, in 1972 the autumn holidays in Leningrad passed much calmer than in previous years, there were less people and youth danced and sang only in the yard of the Synagogue so there was no need to block the traffic along Lermontovsky prospect. According to participants’ recollections, militia with dogs would break up the young people who tried to stay longer to sing and dance in the Synagogue yard. However, on ordinary days only few elderly people came to the Synagogue. It seemed that the Synagogue was getting emptier and emptier, especially after the death of rabbi A. Lubanov. But by the end of 1970-ies the situation changed as part of of Jewish national movement activists turned to Judaism.
Young people started to come to the synagogue not only on holidays but also on weekdays. Being afraid of KGB intelligencers, rabbi Efim Zavel’evich Levitis, who took this position in early 1980-ies, as well as the old people, who made up the core of the community, at first met the young people with distrust. According to one of the movement participants, the old people, having come through jails and camps, were afraid not only for the community, but also for those young people who came to the Synagogue. That is why they pretended to be unfriendly and asked young people to leave, but were secretely glad to teach them, and even let them borrow books from the library, though it was against the rules.
Gradually by the middle of 1980-ies the Synagogue turned into the centre of revival of Jewish religious life in Leningrad. This role was something old people could not assume. But there had already been formed a network of different underground circles and seminars, whose activists were one way or another connected with Judaism.